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Starring Mandela and Cosby

Media and the End(s) of Apartheid

During the worst years of apartheid, the most popular show on television in South Africa—among both Black and White South Africans—was The Cosby Show. Why did people living under a system built on the idea that Black people were inferior and threatening flock to a show that portrayed African Americans as comfortably mainstream? Starring Mandela and Cosby takes up this paradox, revealing the surprising impact of television on racial politics.

The South African government maintained a ban on television until 1976, and according to Ron Krabill, they were right to be wary of its potential power. The medium, he contends, created a shared space for communication in a deeply divided nation that seemed destined for civil war along racial lines. At a time when it was illegal to publish images of Nelson Mandela, Bill Cosby became the most recognizable Black man in the country, and, Krabill argues, his presence in the living rooms of white South Africans helped lay the groundwork for Mandela’s release and ascension to power.

Weaving together South Africa’s political history and a social history of television, Krabill challenges conventional understandings of globalization, offering up new insights into the relationship between politics and the media.


“Ron Krabill has provided students of race, television, and cultural exchange with a new landmark that we all must read--and will all enjoy. In an era when we are told that race should not matter, TV is finished, and cultural exchange has been eased through YouTube, he brings us back to reality. Bravo!”

Toby Miller | author of Television Studies: The Basics

“This is a wonderfully fluid, fluent, and extraordinarily well-written analysis. Krabill has immersed himself in his story and he provides a theoretically refreshing way of telling it. He senses the contextual experiential nuance and the local-global texture of events as they unfolded, and by locating his narrative within the analytical nexus between Mandela and Cosby, the U.S. and South Africa, he appeals to readers across disciplines.”

Keyan Tomaselli | author of The Cinema of Apartheid

“Krabill’s Starring Mandela and Cosby provides an unusual perspective on a phenomenon that may have been marginal in the bigger context of South Africa’s transition towards democracy, but nevertheless adds an interesting view to the study of communication in authoritarian systems.”

Corinna Arndt | Journal of Modern African Studies

Table of Contents


List of Abbreviations

INTRODUCTION / Media, Democratization, and the End(s) of Apartheid

ONE / Structured Absences and Communicative Spaces

TWO / In the Absence of Television

THREE / “They Stayed ’til the Flag Streamed”

FOUR / Surfing into Zulu

FIVE / Living with the Huxtables in a State of Emergency

SIX / I May Not Be a Freedom Fighter, but I Play One on TV

CONCLUSION / Television and the Afterlife of Apartheid




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