David Blair, Telegraph (London), Oct. 19
South Africa’s official broadcaster was forced to scrap its Great South Africans series yesterday after viewers chose white supremacists, convicted fraudsters and cheating sportsmen for the top 100 places.
State television’s poll of national heroes placed apartheid villains and a cricket captain who fixed matches far ahead of black freedom fighters and Nobel laureates.
The last straws were the selection of Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister who built apartheid, in 19th place, and Eugene TerreBlanche, the self-confessed racist who served three years in jail for attempted murder, in 25th.
Both were ranked above numerous heroes of the African National Congress including the late Oliver Tambo, who led the movement for 26 years, and Albert Luthuli, who won the Nobel Peace Prize. They were relegated to 31st and 41st respectively — behind Leon Schuster, a white “candid camera” comedian, who came 30th. Nelson Mandela was automatically accorded first place without a vote.
The viewers’ choice of heroes provoked fury among African National Congress supporters. “The programme in its current form distorts the history of our country, and represents nothing else but an insult to the struggle icons of our people,” said a statement from the party’s Youth League.
Viewers cast their votes by telephone, text message and e-mail, methods that favoured South Africa’s four million whites. “The only thing it proves is that white South Africans have telephones,” said Max du Preez, a columnist with The Star, a Johannesburg daily.
South Africa’s Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has made documentaries about each of the top 10 choices. But the series was scrapped after the first two episodes and the programme on Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, was hastily pulled on Sunday night.
“We’re going back to the drawing board on this one,” said Peter Matlare, the head of SABC. Hinting at the disproportionate role played by white viewers, he added: “We need to ensure that each and every South African knows about the initiative and plays an active role in defining the outcome.”
Paul Setsetse, a spokesman for SABC, said organised voting by a few white extremists to force their heroes into the top 100 might have occurred. “Anything is possible,” he said. But no figures were issued for the total number of votes cast or for the tally amassed by each “hero”.
Curious choices are found even among those in the top 10. SABC asked viewers to “vote for the person who you feel should stand alongside Nelson Mandela as the greatest South African”.
The answer, according to SABC viewers, is Gary Player, the 68-year-old golfer who won the British Open in 1959 and topped the poll. Next came Mohandas Gandhi, who spent 21 years in South Africa and campaigned for the rights of its Indian community, but never became a citizen.
F W de Klerk, the last white president, who negotiated the end of apartheid, came fourth, followed by Jan Smuts, the prime minister who led South Africa through the Second World War. Both outranked President Thabo Mbeki, who was placed seventh, and Mr Tutu, who came eighth.
Mr Tutu was only narrowly ahead of the man chosen as the 11th greatest South African — Hansie Cronje, the disgraced cricket captain who was found guilty of match-fixing and banned from playing in 2000.
Three apartheid-era presidents made the top 100, including P W Botha, who ranked 87th — ahead of Mr Mbeki’s father, Govan, who spent 24 years on Robben Island.
Cecil Rhodes, the diamond magnate and British imperial ideologue, took 56th place, ahead of Alan Paton, the crusader for racial justice whose novel Cry the Beloved Country damned the apartheid system.
Many heroes of black South Africa are notable by their absence from the top 100. Cetshwayo, the Zulu king who defeated the British at the Battle of Isandhlwana in 1879, does not figure on the list.
Nor does Moshoeshoe, whose masterly diplomacy against the Boers and the British gave birth to the independent kingdom of Lesotho. The imperialists who made it their life’s mission to destroy black nationalism — like Rhodes — are honoured instead.
Mr Setsetse conceded that many of those in the top 100 “should not have been there”.
State television hoped to celebrate South Africa’s national unity by producing a list of heroes. Instead, the exercise has shown how deep the nation’s divisions remain.
Bewildered South Africans believe that SABC’s well-meaning exercise, modelled on the BBC’s Great Britons series, has exposed their country’s inability to unite behind any choice of heroes, with the sole exception of Mr Mandela.
“The list of Great South Africans tells us a lot about our society. Few of those who bothered to vote sat back and thought about South Africans as one nation, trying to figure out who had made a difference, a contribution over the past 400 years,” wrote Mr du Preez.
“People voted to get their ‘own’ in the list. We had better vote in our thousands for ‘our’ leaders, otherwise we will be marginalised, they thought.”
Painful memories of South African history ensure that, 10 years after the end of apartheid, figures from the past remain as intensely controversial as ever.
The choice of heroes among South Africans divides largely according to race, and one man’s pantheon of glory is a rogues’ gallery for another.