/ 12 October 2007

Soweto switches on to community television

Three doors down from the old home of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, make-up artists apply the finishing touches to the presenters of Soweto TV as they prepare to host a daily debate.

”Welcome to Dlala Ngeringas [Fun Debate],” says Zuko Xabanisa as the cameras start rolling in the classroom-turned-studio in the heart of the giant township that was the crucible to the struggle against the whites-only regime.

A stream of callers queues up to have their say on air and argue with studio guests on whether unmarried couples should live together. Many more viewers contribute by SMS during the course of the hour-long show.

Other parts of the evening schedule include a lifestyle show, a Soweto Today current-affairs programme and a slot devoted to the arts in a township seen as the cutting edge of music, dance and drama in the new South Africa.

Documentaries on issues such as HIV/Aids and religion add weight to a station that is already attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers a night.

”Everything we do here is about Soweto and issues that affect people living in the township,” said the station’s chief executive, Tshepo Thafeng.

The offices are inside a disused school on Vilakazi Street, which not only was once home to Mandela but is still the part-time home to his fellow Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

On air

Broadcasting in 11 of the rainbow nation’s different languages, the channel currently airs for five hours a night to a potential audience of about two million who live both in Soweto and in outlying suburbs of nearby Johannesburg.

The station first came on air with temporary month-long broadcast licences in 2005 and 2006. Since June it has been broadcasting full-time on a local licence, but it will be available nationwide from Monday on the satellite network DStv.

Funded by a combination of advertising and private donations, the station is staffed by 40 young unpaid volunteers from Soweto, many of whom have never had any formal training in broadcasting.

”The whole idea is to give training and open opportunities to youngsters in Soweto,” said the station’s chairperson, Force Khashane. ”In that way we are empowering local people who in turn can assume ownership of the project.”

”The channel is about Soweto, for Soweto, by Sowetans. We are glad it is happening for the first time here,” he said of the first community television station to go nationwide.

Thafenge said mainstream television has failed to cater to the tastes of Sowetans whose growing sense of self-confidence and spending power has been recently underlined by the opening of one of South Africa’s biggest shopping centres, the Maponya Mall.

”The township is multicultural, multiracial, with so many different things going on. There are lots of stories about Soweto that are never told,” said Thafeng.

”[These are] ordinary things done by ordinary citizens organised from their backyard shacks that mainstream TV doesn’t cover. Those are the core values of what makes the township so vibrant that we are covering.

”There has always been a stigma associated with its past of throwing stones and violence, which no longer exists. People from outside South Africa should know there is life in Soweto. It’s growing, it’s vibrant. And we are going to use the 24-hour satellite platform to showcase that.”


Khashane agreed that the station offers a chance to reverse perceptions about Soweto, which is still synonymous in many South African eyes with poverty and the anti-apartheid riots of the 1970s and 1980s.

”Soweto is no longer a shack,” said Khashane. ”It’s a suburb, there is progress and this [the channel] is part of the progress in Soweto. Everybody wants to be part of Soweto. It’s a township with lots of history and possibilities behind it.”

Although Thafeng believes Soweto TV can serve as a trailblazer for other community television stations, some critics believe the model is not yet viable given that so little advertising is focused on black consumers.

”There is definitely a need and a gap for local television, but it is hard to see a viable financial model for true community television in the country at this time,” said Anton Harber, professor of communications at the University of the Witwatersrand.

”Community radio in this country has struggled to survive because of a lack of resources and shortage of skills. To survive it would have to be ruthlessly commercial than community focused,” he added. — Sapa-AFP