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Moon landing: Apartheid stopped it being seen live in South Africa

Like Bob Evans in Moscow, I and members of the Reuters bureau in Johannesburg could not see the Lunar mission as it happened because of officialdom.

Television was not allowed in South Africa in 1969 for ideological reasons. The white Afrikaner government feared they could not control its content. They particularly did not want black people to be shown living lives and in roles denied to black African citizens under Apartheid.

Dr Albert Hertzog, a prominent  government minister, had argued that “South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make Africans dissatisfied with their lot.” TV was denounced as the “devil’s own box, for disseminating communism and immorality.”

Still, there was obviously great interest in the exploits of Apollo 11 throughout the country. 

The authorities thus, bizarrely, arranged to have TV film of the events flown out from London and shown days later on a small TV screen only at the Johannesburg Planetarium.

Small groups of politicians and the privileged elite were invited to watch at different times. The time delay in screening meant that on the day Neil Armstrong walked on the lunar surface, that audience only saw the spacecraft approaching the moon several days before.

The TV film was brought daily from London by BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways. Beryl Santorelli, wife of my fellow Reuter correspondent and great friend, Len Santorelli, was a member of BOAC’s cabin crew on the Johannesburg route during those days. Len was in Laos, war-reporting. 

I cannot remember if it was through BOAC, but Beryl and I got tickets to see some early footage together at the Planetarium. It was a strange experience, being in that audience, peering at a small screen in a small room, watching amazing things take place in space thousands of miles away.

At first, only privileged whites could attend the Planetarium screenings. The authorities later relented and put aside a day for black people. At least seven thousand turned up. 

They hadn’t expected or planned for that, and called out the aggressive riot police to manage the enthusiastic crowd. Disorder followed.

Only in Apartheid South Africa could mankind’s giant leap forward lead to what some local press wrongly called a “race riot”. ■