18 things you probably didn’t know about South African TV
Nursing a cup of tea in my lunch break and navigating the treacherous waters of social media to reset and get my mind off work, ever so briefly. I came across a video posted by Casper de Vries – it was a 15-minute blooper reel for his hilarious comedy sketch series, Cas Oppie Kassie.
I watched the series the minute it was released on Showmax, but one of the scenes from the blooper reel made me think that I somehow missed an episode. I headed over to Showmax and typed in “Kassie” and went down a completely different rabbit hole, because right next to Casper was Oppi Kassie, a two-season series totalling 39 episodes chronicling the history of South African television from its inception in the 1970s to how far South Africa has come with DStv, kykNET, the Silwerskermfees and the rapid advancement in tech and production quality in general.
I truly hope that there will be a third season of Oppi Kassie, because it is important to document the progress of our arts to see where we come from and where we’re heading, and I would really love to see the story of the rise of Showmax. For now, let me treat you to 18 things you probably didn’t know about South African TV that I discovered in the first six episodes of Season 1.
- A Scottish dude called John Logie Baird demonstrated TV for the first time in 1926 in Britain. Later that same year, another dude, Lord Angus Kennedy, did the same in Cape Town, Joburg and Plakkietoria but the SABC only started doing research in 1937!
- In the 60s, the minister of Post and Telecommunications, Dr Albert Hertzog, said that television would come to South Africa “over his dead body”. He labeled it “a miniature bioscope which is being carried into the house over which parents have no control.” He also called it The Devil’s Box. In fact, during a cabinet meeting he said “No!” to television for over an hour, which earned him the nickname of “Dr No!” from the English press.
- South Africa was one of the last modern countries to get the Covid-19 vaccine… uhm… I mean television! Television!
- The first transmitter powerful enough to distribute the signal countrywide cost R45k! Just to give you an idea – the nominal price of an average house in 1966 was R9 516!
- R170m had to be borrowed from abroad to finance the TV broadcasting service.
- RAU (now UJ) was looking into construction around the same time the SABC was looking at breaking ground. Because the same oke was in charge, they simply swapped out land. This means that UJ would have been built in Auckland Park where the SABC finds itself today.
- Being one of the last countries to adopt television had its advantages. The SABC’s broadcasting complex was probably the best in the world at the time. Everything was housed under one roof, including offices, radio facilities, TV building, workshops, a doll building factory, costume department, graphic and photographic departments, training centers, news offices, news studios and sound studios.
- Technical staff in particular were a major headache – there were not enough of them and 20% of expenses went to technical people. Tertiary education requirements were 50% for mathematics and science at the time, but the SABC simply hired people en masse and paid for their studies and salaries.
- Because TV was so new, the SABC relied on their people with experience from the radio world, so it is no surprise that everyone’s favourite uncle, the immortal Riaan Cruywagen, started out as a news director for radio.
- The news peeps were so busy up-skilling and learning how to cope with this new format that the first news broadcast happened by chance. TV news was supposed to kick off in September 1975 but on 28 April 1975 an armed man by the name of David Proctor decided to occupy the Israeli Consulate in Fox Street, Johannesburg. The story made so much international news that they had no choice but to put out a news programme that very evening.
- A small handpicked group of SABC TV pioneers had to travel across the world to investigate how television works in different countries – aspects of management, content, the production and purchase of programmes, and so on. They had to watch a lot of TV in hotel rooms. Verna Vels (Liewe Heksie) was part of this team, and meetings were usually held in her room after watching TV the entire day, because she would be the only member who had any whiskey left.
- The first channel was simply called SAUK TV and they initially only broadcast between 18:00 and 23:00 – one half in Afrikaans and one half in English.
- The very first Afrikaans TV drama was called Blomme Vir Ma. The big boss of the SAUK, Pieter de Bruyn, had a hissy fit because the production team drank R67’s worth of soda while working in the sun for nine days. He refused to sign the expense claim, handed in by Hennie Human. Two years later, Hennie would buy an entire farm for a production on his own authority.
- Commercials were broadcast in 1978 for the first time. As with anything new and unfamiliar, there was resistance – viewers hated ads and several action groups rose up against advertising. It took a while, but commercials were eventually accepted.
- Wielie Walie was the first kids’ TV programme to air, and became the base for children’s television. It was an educational programme similar to Sesame Street, and the creator, Louise Smit, described it as “education on an ice cream”.
- The smoke billowing from Sarel Seemonster‘s nostrils was actually cigarette smoke that was blown through a pipe under the set by the puppeteers who doubled as the voice talent. Siff, man!
- Talk about siff – the hair on Liewe Heksie’s head is friggin’ dog hair, which was stuck to the puppet with glue!
- Back in the day, it didn’t matter if you read the news or if you happened to be the head of a department while also doing character voices for several TV shows – you weren’t paid a cent extra while on the clock for your normal salary.
I will leave it to you to discover the rest for yourself on Oppi Kassie. Happy hunting!