S. Africa loosens up, lets Playboy print local edition

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

November 16, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa passed yet another milestone in its return to the world stage last week when the country got its very own edition of Playboy.

In his opening letter from the editor, Hugh Hefner compared the assault that he led against "conformity and repression" in the United States when he founded the magazine 40 years ago to the changes going on in South Africa.

"There were those willing to challenge the old order, to reinvent America, to launch a great cultural experiment," he wrote of his compatriots in the 1950s.

"Now South Africa is embarking on the same kind of bold venture. I am confident that reflected in the pages of the South African edition of Playboy will be the very same independent spirit, courage and vision that led you to challenge the old order."

Christie Hefner, the founder's daughter and current CEO of the Playboy empire, came to town for the launching of the local franchise. The first edition features a 19-year-old Playmate from Cape Town who is of mixed race and an interview with a longtime apartheid fighter, Joe Slovo, head of the South African Communist Party.

Despite this political correctness, Ms. Hefner found a handful of demonstrators from the African National Congress Women's League who denounced the magazine as "apartheid erotica" that is produced almost entirely "by rich white men for other rich white men."

Playboy joins local versions of Penthouse and Hustler on South African newsstands and is another indication that the country has relaxed its strict censorship as well as its racial barriers.

Which is not to say that anything goes in South Africa. As with so many aspects of this country, its attitude toward sex and censorship is reminiscent of the United States of about a quarter-century ago.

It is only in the last couple of years that South African readers of glossy magazines were allowed to gaze upon the female breast without strategically placed stars.

But that's as far as these magazines can go. Even Hustler, known for raunchiness in its U.S. version, must abide by the regulations that limit the nudity to that of Playboy in the United States circa 1968.

The magazine that consistently tests the limits is a local publication called Scope. It tried to get in some full frontal shots recently by advertising them as an "art portfolio." The censors would have none of it. It was banned.

The Scope publishers appealed, which kept the issue on the newsstands for a few more days until the ban was upheld, meaning that all unsold copies had to be recalled. Of course, by then, news of the banning had made the issue a sellout.

The government also guards the public against films, regularly turning down scores of them.

Historically, much of those barriers were against anything that showed blacks and whites together in anything but the most controlled relationships.

But now it's mainly sex and language that get the attention. "Basic Instinct" and the like get through, but nothing hard-core.

The first depiction of explicit sex did just pass the censors. It's a widely advertised how-to sex video and reportedly contains a clinical narration sufficiently dull to keep viewers from getting excited enough to threaten national security.

Even watching an episode of a U.S. television series -- already subject to some of the strictest censorship in the world -- on South African television is an unusual experience.

The censors here take the biblical commandment against blasphemy very literally. The most innocuous "Oh, my God," said in surprise or celebration, comes out as "Oh, my [blank]."

This is true even on the country's immensely popular subscription channel, M-Net, which shows its commercial-free movies complete with blips and bleeps for those words deemed offensive.

At times, the censor seems a bit mercurial. The occasional S or F word slips through unfettered, but an "Oh, Lord," or the like never seems to make it.

But all can take solace in knowing that, according to her "Playmate Data Sheet," the first Playboy centerfold most admires "Mother Theresa and also people working for peace in South Africa."

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