This local version of the Salman Rushdie controversy followed a decision by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to ignore Inkatha pressure and broadcast on Saturday a drama called 'The Line' which deals, among other things, with political violence.
Inkatha officials had claimed that the drama, a Channel Four co-production already broadcast in Britain, insulted their Zulu supporters, blaming them for the township killings of recent years and, specifically, for massacres on commuter trains. On Thursday a spokesman for the National Hostel Residents' Association, which is closely aligned to Inkatha, phoned the South African Press Association (Sapa), warning of the consequences should the SABC go ahead and broadcast the offending programme. Phulani Mlotshwa said: 'To continue televising 'The Line' will not just perpetrate new train violence, but the lives of the producer of the series and the actors are in jeopardy . . . we would like to remove them permanently from the face of the earth.'
On Friday, Mr Mlotshwa contacted the media again, this time to say that the 'fatwa' would be imposed by special Inkatha units trained by members of Eugene Terreblanche's far-right Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB). Then on Saturday afternoon 400 Inkatha protesters marched on the SABC to demand that the programme be withdrawn.
Brian Tilley, who wrote and directed 'The Line', told the Independent at his hiding place yesterday that the alarm bells had started to ring after the AWB factor entered the equation. 'I suddenly realised this guy was making a call to arms over the radio.'
He and producer Jeremy Nathan proceeded to lay charges of intimidation and incitement to violence against the hostel association before contacting the cast and, with assistance from the SABC, offering them the option of spending the weekend in a safe place. Ramolao Makhene was one of the six lead actors who accepted the offer. 'I was a little worried about the reactions of these people but I thought, 'Bugger it] We must tell things as they are]'
'But then on Saturday I was in town and the Inkatha marchers came straight past me. At that moment I reckoned, 'Look, I've got children and responsibility and therefore I must take heed of those threats'.'
What upset Inkatha about 'The Line' was that the story revolves around a young activist from Soweto who survives a train massacre carried out by an AK-47-wielding Inkatha hostel leader. As the sole surviving witness, he becomes a target for the Inkatha man as well as the police, who are identified as having supplied guns to the hostel-dwellers for their war against the African National Congress 'comrades'.
The significance of the drama reaches far beyond the bare bones of the plot. Eschewing the usual South African caricatures, 'The Line' dramatises the nuances of the changing social relationships between blacks and whites in recent years, conveys everyday black life with a realism rarely seen within what Mr Tilley called 'the operatic' conventions of the SABC and educates people into a rejection of violence as an instrument of political persuasion.
'The film is really, simply, about the new South Africa. It's terribly disappointing that it should be portrayed as a violent drama with political connotations.'
What Mr Tilley found encouraging, however, was the boldness of the SABC in going ahead and broadcasting his work.
Mr Makhene saw the significance of 'The Line' in broader terms. 'This film is important because it talks to people's hearts - not like Mandela and De Klerk talking all that constitutional stuff.' But was it worth the price? 'Look, I must admit that the more I think about all this, the more I panic. The answer is to get on with my life as soon as possible, stop worrying and hope for the best.'