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How do we tell and popularise the stories of Can Themba and other icons?

22 Nov 2017 KAYA VOICES

By Shitshembiso Mabasa

South African TV is missing a lot of stories that are based on iconic South Africans from different walks of life. So how do we fix this without making it political, expensive or guilt broadcasters?

A few weeks ago, author and playwright Siphiwo Mahala joined Mike Siluma in a discussion about Can Themba to commemorate 50 years since his passing. Over the past few years, Mahala has had a growing obsession with Themba and in a conversation after the interview spoke of his desire to see his work popularized and easily accessible.

This had me thinking about the role television could potentially play in bringing the stories of many of our icons to life. In my view, TV writers and TV producers have to adjust their approach to television content – the days of passion projects are over, it’s time to service the existing market and tell authentic stories all at once.

When it comes to on-screen content, we see a class divide: Iconic stories and real South African stories are packaged and consumed by higher classes. Lower class consumers are fed fictional spin-offs of American content and over the top Poverty Porn. However, what we have seen is that content done in local languages performs better than English content. We have also seen that alternative content has more interactivity than traditional on-screen content; local content makers are leading traffic on Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.

We need to take stories of our Icons and People of Interest and make modern adaptations of them, thus guaranteeing;

  1. Production budgets are reasonable
  2. Our history, languages and truths are publicly preserved
  3. Content is diverse and unique to South Africa [Expanding the spectrum]

We have enough stories, but very limited resources to create to our wildest imaginations. Also, it doesn’t make financial sense to spend over 30 million on one project which will be watched by a few selected middle class, when that 30 million can give us three TV series on Dimitri Tsafendas (The man who stabbed Verwoerd to death), Collins Chauke (former MK member turned into heist master), Nelson Mandela (The terrorist) etc.

There is always more than one timeline to one story, and in order to break through, TV creators must find a light narration to penetrate the market. When you zoom into the lives of our icons, they had a very complicated love relationship with various people in their lives. Can Themba’s love life would make better TV than the political debates that went down at the House of Truth. If you let the love storyline drive the series, the other heavy subjects can be brought in bit by bit without overwhelming our core TV audience.

Nollywood created an industry with low production content, Hip-hop blew up globally by dumbing down, Bollywood is promoting Indian culture in a very beautiful and authentic way, and Hollywood constantly makes commercial projects of various Iconic events and people. We can also do all of this without frustrating any stakeholder within our existing TV industry. We just need to create content products that generate money and cater to the existing market, by treating content as products – which means the feel, the look and the distribution must be familiar to the consumers.

The commercialization of our content is the only vehicle in popularizing and preserving our iconic stories, events and people.

But maybe I’m wrong…

Shitshembiso Mabasa is an on-air content producer for Kaya FM

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