SABC's white guilt complex

Once upon a time, long before the heady days of El Nino, South African TV drama was as soft as an English muffin and as wet as English weather. The Importance of Being Earnest and Charlie’s Aunt were the primary ingredients of our homemade white bread in the 1970s and 1980s—and you may cringe if you like at the wasted hours of life conditioned by the SABC’s neo-colonials, whose very office plans were drawn up by the BBC, brought in to advise our first TV service in the late 1970s.

Cover your head with a brown paper bag, though, if you were once caught ogling Lena Farugia playing southern comfort with American street in Westgate. Worse, still, if you tuned in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to spy the crimpelene death fashions in the soap The House of Mankowitz, which yanked the hell out of a pale fixation with yuppies.

Soon, with the rooi gevaar entrenched in the popular imagination, series like Barney Barnato and Scotty Smith lured us into a peculiar depiction of our history when 1980s TV propagandists determined to prove that even though white South Africa was under threat, it remained civilised, brave and cheerful. (Clearly 1922, still regarded as perhaps the finest drama series ever made in this country, was a blip on the screen.)

Now the urge for revisionist history has liberated the SABC’s drama department which was once overrun with period props and costumes to detract from the awful truth. The political terrain, as it hovers at the sick- bed of apartheid, has been the chosen environment of English series since CCV faced the wrath of the Inkatha Freedom Party in the early 1990s for The Line—an unparalleled take on violence with superb production values and comment on the rotten state.

It took a few more years for SABC3’s Homeland to creep through the bush of the past to explore, however superficially, the pain of being a soldier in the South African Defence Force. Lambasted by the country’s acerbic critics for being politically correct and, hence, a torment made by the butt of the gun, Homeland did surprisingly good business for the channel. So did Molo Fish—a Canadian co- production about activism and exile—for SABC1, even if it had an amateurish streak that held back its potential.

Arguably the best political drama we’ve seen since the censors backed off has been Deafening Silence, last year’s extraordinary adaptation from John Miles’s Kroniek uit die Doofpot, which not only revealed a fascinating human story of abuse and discrimination but also featured the best cast yet, led by our brightest talents Vusi Kunene and Nthathi Moshesh. Deafening Silence acheived good ratings, too, despite its seriousness.

Two new English series that will be aired this month on SABC3 could again eloquently prove the point that South African viewers are not quite as averse to seeing their political past play out on screen as are some critics, but the will to expunge white guilt, the old liberal bogeyman, is becoming an uncomfortable trend.

Natural Rhythm—based on Alison Lowry’s bestselling novel—and the Helen Joseph biopic If this Be Treason are both very firmly focused on white characters and their lives inside and beyond the struggle.

Clive Rodel, the SABC’s commissioning editor for drama, agrees there seems to have been a disappointing shift away from broader-based political drama such as The Line, Homeland and Molo Fish in the past two years. The reason, says Rodel, is because the SABC selected its recent work from proposals accepted before SABC3—the source of national English drama—was even a fully-fledged channel.

Natural Rhythm was on the cards a couple of years ago, but If This Be Treason is an original SABC3 production chosen for its scintillating story rather than out of conscience. The story of six women friends and the first democratic election, Natural Rhythm was put on hold before being resurrected last year.

Producer Johann van den Berg of The Line Producers—the crew behind SABC3’s ratings success-story, Screenplay—agrees that the new wave of national drama has sometimes been too “on the nail”: “Perhaps that was the case with The Principal [also The Line Producers] but I think that was a reflection of the past. The politics in Natural Rhythm is merely a subtext. It deals with a lot of contemporary issues ... health, camaraderie, marriage, children, kids, homosexuality and political activism.”

Starring Jennifer Steyn, Dorothy-Ann Gould, Wilson Dunster, Gavin van den Berg, Jocelyn Broderick, Andrew Buckland and Kevin Smith—a pedigreed cast in anybody’s book—Natural Rhythm is a drama that Van den Berg hopes will become compulsive viewing without a trenchant political message: “We have the freedom to talk candidly on television. The smokescreen is gone and we’re focusing on real issues to reflect the openness.”

Even though The Principle, The Line producers’ controversial big English drama about Alan Paton screened on SABC3 last year, was not a hit with viewers, the company is presently developing Paton’s novel Too Late the Phalarope as The Divided House, a telefilm. Set 40 years ago and dealing with an inter-racial romance, the movie apparently updates the original novel.

“Bigotry, guilt and intransigence still exist,” says Van den Berg, “but instead of being didactic, we’re trying to be more subtle with the issues. If you like, we’re going through the back door with the narrative. Our approach to telling the story is to sow one tiny little seed rather than spilling the whole packet.”

If This Be Treason—a two-part miniseries which seeks to reconstruct our past as it dramatises the biography of activist Helen Joseph—is less subtle, but director Cedric Sundstrom—who spent the tax- busting 1980s making American Ninja pictures—has managed to turn what could have been a laboured ideological melodrama into a television work of note.

He says the politicising of television drama does not mean “we have found ourselves yet”: “We’re still dealing with our history and we have to cleanse ourselves and get rid of it before we can start tackling more dinnocuous stories.”

Rodel is candid on the issue of the needs of the marketplace. He’s pleased Deafening Silence and Homeland acheived good ratings, but he’s also not entirely convinced the public’s appetite for especially white guilt dramas is boundless.

“We have to answer to our viewers,” he says, “and I think SABC3 has particularly taken note of criticism and adapted to the changing environment. We will be moving more into contemporary dramas and soaps from the middle of this year so as not to get caught in broadcasting the same kind of work over and over again. Television drama is also about good business principles, not only about serving the past as a public broadcaster.”

Rodel refers to the Vietnam Syndrome in America where the issues of an unjust war continue to filter into popular culture, including television: “We’re also going through a process of understanding our past using TV as a vehicle, but I believe we have enough competent, reliable, creative people working in the business to come up with new ideas all the time. As long as the viewers recognise our characters as being human, as living lives close to their own, I think they’ll enjoy the drama we put on air.”

Meanwhile, SABC2 isn’t even licking the envelope, let alone pushing it with its big new Afrikaans drama Samaritaan—a child abuse thriller about a serial killer, starting on February 29—which parades “racial tension” as a necessary “but unfortunate” part of the plot. Viewers may well ask why (and may also want to know why Mike Mvelase seems to be the only black actor in this country who consistently finds work in Afrikaans.)

The retrograde quality of a phrase like “racial tension” sends a shiver up the spine, leading to a demand for the channel to examine its Afrikaans drama in the context of South Africa, past and present. Until black characters are awarded full status in Afrikaans dramas, instead of being used as conduits for the ubiquitous racial subtext, they will become more and more irrelevant.

At least the channel can hoist high the ratings success of its Sesotho drama Kelebone, directed by Neal Sundstrom, in which the tale of twin brothers whose parents are killed in politically-motivated murders collides into a psychological thriller.

The integration of social drama with political history is possible without banner-waving and nail-biting angst—unless of course the SABC decides to stick with the winning formula of SABC1, which comes close to political probing only in the hostel-based comedy, Emzini Wezinsizwa (now in a new season on Wednesdays).

If this lightweight piece can draw a good crowd week after week with its brand of gentle satire, surely a drama could do the same—and bite harder without feeling guilty.

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