The History of TV in South Africa

history of tv in south africa

Politics played a big role in the delayed introduction of television to South Africa, with the apartheid government concerned about the undue influence on a conflicted nation. But in 1976 – the same year as the Soweto uprising – South Africa finally introduced TV sets, almost half a decade after the first TV set was introduced in San Francisco, USA.

TV Enters The World Stage

In 1927, a 21-year-old Philo Taylor Farnsworth managed to invent the first television – effectively a system that captured moving images in a form which was coded onto radio waves and transformed to screen. Although he was by no means the first to conceive of the concept, it is his prototype which is acknowledged as the ‘ancestor’ of TV sets. 

Initial television sets were understandably primitive, and while WWII slowed the development of the technology (focus was on the manufacture of military equipment), full-scale commercial broadcasting got underway soon after in 1947. By 1949, many homes in the USA had access to TV sets, introducing the ‘Golden Age’ of television in the 1950s and the development of new formats such as game shows and sitcoms. 

The Political Concern

With South Africa in the midst of the tension and violence that characterised the apartheid years, television was feared by government officials as a threat to their power. Then prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, likened television with destructive elements such as poison gas and atomic bombs, stating: 

‘…they are modern things, but that does not mean they are desirable. The government has to watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical.’

He was supported by Dr Albert Hertzog, then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, denounced television as a ‘a miniature bioscope [cinema] over which parents would have no control’. Another important part of his argument was that the films showing ‘race mixing’ would cause dissent. He referred to it as the ‘devil’s own box for disseminating communism and immorality’. 

The Moon Landing

In 1969, the world witnessed one of the greatest feats of humanity when Neil Armstrong and his team of American astronauts landed on the moon. This was also one of the first moments of collective experience, with the world united in watching a single, historic event. 

For South Africa, this became a turning point in the drive to bring television sets into the home, because while most of the world got to share in this glory, the nation was left on the sidelines. And although the government did arrange viewing of the recorded footage to appease its citizens, this wasn’t enough – particularly when neighbouring Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) had television since 1961. 

The Wheels Start Turning

Two years after the moon landing, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) – which focused on radio at the time – was allowed to introduce television, but it only started with experimental broadcasts some four years later in 1975. The initial plan was for English, Afrikaans and ‘TV Bantu’ channels, but the reality proved too difficult, so only one channel was introduced on 5 January 1976

Unlike most nations that started with black-and-white television, South Africans experienced colour TV from the start, using a system known as Phase Alternating Line (PAL). This was funded through a UK-based licence, after which advertising began to bring in revenue in 1978. 

Television Takes Hold in South Africa

By 1981, a second TV channel had been introduced for African language speakers, with TV1 catering to English and Afrikaans. And in 1986, the SABC finally lost the monopoly of television broadcasting with the introduction of M-Net, a subscription-based service funded by newspaper publishers – Naspers among them. The political threat posed by TV remained a concern for the apartheid government, and a restriction was imposed on M-Net that it not broadcast any news programmes. However, in 1988, it bypassed this restriction with the introduction of Carte Blanche, which was categorised as a ‘current affairs’ programme. 

Digital Services Arrive

In 1992, as South Africa was transitioning into a democratic country, analogue services were launched, replaced only four years later by digital services. DStv (Digital Satellite Television) accompanied this, giving South Africans an array of viewing choices. In 2002, the introduction of the dual-view DStv decoder allowed for simultaneous viewing from different channels. And, in 2006, DStv mobile allowed for mobile television watching. 

Streaming Services Arrive

The recent arrival of web-based streaming services has revolutionised the television watching experience. DStv has pivoted with the introduction of its streaming service, Showmax, although South Africans are now spoilt for choice with Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and Google Play…with more set to come this way. This is all bad news for SABC which has remained stagnant in a time of massive technological growth, and government bailouts coupled with demands for TV licences for streaming services isn’t going to help. 

Modern TV Technology

With the innovation in broadcasting has come advancements in television sets as well, with consumers able to choose from a wide variety of TV options. Here’s a look at some of the TV types on the market. 


If you’re looking solely at the technological options out there, these are the main six:

1. Direct View TV

Although few manufacturers make these, it is based on the original cathode-ray tube TV technology. It’s unlikely you’ll want to purchase one unless you’re into vintage gaming. 

2. Plasma TV

Using cathode-ray tube technology, this was the first flatscreen TV with a plasma layer flanked by electrodes. Most companies discontinued this line in 2015. 

3. Digital Light Processing (DLP)

Digital signals are processed by a million mirrors tilting at various degrees. This made for a much smoother viewing experience. 

4. Liquid Crystal Display (LCD)

Every pixel contains precisely-orientated liquid crystal molecules aligned between two electrodes with polarising filters. Most are backlit with LED lights

5. Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) Display

This has organic compounds that emit light in response to electricity. They don’t require backlighting so there is better contrast. 

6. Quantum Light-Emitting Diode (QLED)

This is the next generation of LCD displays which uses nanoparticles – quantum dots – embedded in the LCD to improve colour and brightness. 

Screens and Features

The TV screens are now available in flat or curved, differing in sizes – 32” through 292” (the world’s biggest!), with a number of features to consider, including:

  • Smart TV 
  • High Dynamic Range 
  • Voice Activated

If you’re looking at buying a new TV, it’s worth consulting with industry professionals to ensure you’re getting the right TV for your personal needs. With so many options to choose from, it can get quite daunting!