/ 6 November 2007

Loxion kulcha: Soweto TV takes the lead

The only fixed-line telephone for the first community television station in South Africa to get a year-long broadcasting licence is hidden away in an outdoor broadcasting van for fear of freeloading by staff and guests.

When you call the station let it ring for a long time, publicist Deon Botha advises.

Welcome to Soweto TV: the station for and by residents of the world’s most famous township, where high crime rates mean that the make-up is kept in a locked cage every night, along with the three TV cameras.

After two short runs of one month each in 2005 and 2006, Soweto TV finally went on air for a year in July to viewers in the Johannesburg area.

Since early October subscribers to the DSTV digital pay-television service can also their fix of ”loxion kulcha” (location or township culture) delivered in the rapid-fire mix of Zulu, English and Sotho that is Soweto’s lingua franca.

Housed in a former school building on Vilakazi Street — along which former residents Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have lived — Soweto TV provides community members with a platform for discussing the issues that affect them.

A former classroom in the school has been transformed into a studio.

Next door, children’s pencil drawings of faces still hang on the wall of what has been marked out as the control room.

Presenters in the studio stand in a wooden ”well” out of the side of which juts a desk with space for four guests. Both presenter and guests address their remarks into desk mikes. The landmark cooling towers of Soweto’s now-defunct Orlando power station dominate the set’s painted backdrop.

Matters that get short shrift on national television such as poor delivery of basic services in townships, are the staple pap and vleis of Soweto TV.

A flurry of debate followed a recent report on disgruntled Soweto residents digging holes in a street to slow traffic after their requests for speed bumps to be installed went unheeded. Some viewers sent SMSes expressing their approval of the initiative while others condemned the ”criminal” destruction of public property.

Although Soweto TV is adamant it doesn’t want to instigate so much as chronicle change, a channel serving at least one million people with a chequered history of using the streets to achieve their goals can have a very persuasive effect on politicians.

”We were following the MEC [Gauteng provincial minister] for agriculture on a clean-up and greening campaign in Soweto and we asked, ‘What about the people in the hostels,” Percy Langa, the station’s technical manager, recalls.

”We went and shot the dirt in Dube hostel. The next morning, they [the government] sent guys in to clean.”

Soweto’s transformation from hotbed of anti-apartheid resistance to an increasingly middle class suburb replete with shopping malls, a four-star hotel and sushi restaurants has gone unnoticed by many throughout South Africa and beyond.

”We want to educate, inform and entertain people,” declares Soweto TV CEO and founder Tshepo Thafeng. ”People think that the minute you set foot in Soweto your wallet is gone. It’s not like that,” he says.

”It’s a multicultural, multiracial, multi-political place — a real reflection of the Rainbow Nation.”

With unemployment in townships hovering around the 50%, giving young people crucial on-the-job work experience is a key part of Soweto TV’s mandate.

Presenting jobs are particularly prestigious.

From behind big sunglasses, the presenter of the Tuesday music programme Bliss, Simpiwe Golding, languidly confirms her newfound star status.

”On Saturday I had to wear a cap when I went to the mall. People were calling Simpiwe, ayoba.”

Ayoba? ”It means ‘whassup’. It’s how I always start my music programme,” she says, jabbing the air gangsta-style with two well-manicured fingers.

Soweto TV broadcasts for five hours each evening, with an hour each for youth and women’s issues, current affairs, lifestyle and music. The evening news is read by a journalist from the Sowetan newspaper.

With only one of the two national broadcasters, the SABC, providing news in African languages, developing a local television network is seen as representing the final piece in the post-apartheid media jigsaw.

But at least one media expert is skeptical of Soweto TV’s viability as a non-commercial initiative.

While welcoming the channel as having the potential to ”add to our diversity significantly”, Anton Harber, professor of journalism at the University of Witwatersrand, admits: ”It’s hard for me to see how there can be sufficient advertising and support for something as expensive as television.

For the moment, while the newly-established Media Development and Diversity Agency figures out how to fund community television, Soweto TV’s expenses, totalling R2-million since July, are being footed by Urban Brew, a local television production company. ‒ Sapa-DPA