Rush to catch the rhythm

It’s only 6.30pm, but the streets are empty in Bulawayo’s townships. Where are the people? Look around and you’ll see the bright glows of the telly emerging from living rooms.

People are glued to South African television from their free-to-air satellite set-top boxes.
The object of desire is e.tv’s drama, Rhythm City. My fellow countrymen are addicted to this show and its characters are built into daily conversation. Kids all over can be heard mimicking “ke Stone [It was Stone]!”—the usual Sotho line from a character fed up with Stone.

And if the streets are empty at 6.30pm, you should see them at 8pm. That’s when the SABC shows the big one—Generations. It’s the most watched show in South Africa, and I suspect in Zim too. Old and young are hooked, the jazzy theme song blares from households and it’s even become a popular ringtone.

The problem with the youngsters (I hope not the elders too) is that they want to watch Generations whenever it’s on air. My younger siblings always watch not just the evening shows but the morning and afternoon repeats and the weekend marathon as well.

I first thought the Generations and Rhythm City mania was gripping Bulawayo only, but visits to other parts of the country—even the smaller border towns—suggest urban dwellers are visual amateurs by comparison. The border towns can’t pick up local broadcasting frequencies, so almost everyone there has satellite. And I kid you not, these dramas are a fixation.

With Generations, it’s all the glitz and glamour. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want that glam! The mimicking kids rant and rave “tshelete, tshelete [money]!”—another Sotho line—when the oh-so-rich characters are in a “fiscus discuss” and hardly a day passes by without them mentioning the tshelete. With Rhythm City, it’s the more urban ghetto setting we relate to and then we are the “Rhythm Citizens” the show advocates its viewers to be!

The miracle of the magic free-to-air boxes doesn’t stop there. There is every elder’s nightmare: wrestling. Though the free-to-air boxes are very common, not everyone has one, so kids from the neighbourhoods hustle and bustle to where they can find them. Households are turned into cinemas and wrestling crèches are formed.

The elders get baffled and annoyed. But there’s also every young one’s nightmare: elders watching 24-hour news or 24-hour gospel—there are more than 25 gospel channels.

Strolling around the CBD, you’ll see people lugging their newly acquired free-to-air sets and rushing to commuter taxi ranks to get home, plug in and play. And it’s free all right, no subscriptions. Buy once and it’s for keeps.

When our brothers and sisters visit from south of the Limpopo they’re awed. Word is, in Johannesburg they marvel, “ekhaya [home], they watch our channels crystal clear!” I must say, my viewing experience in Johannesburg is a little more subtle: you can be directly looking at the SABC and not get a signal. Then you have to tinker with the aerial, Fifties-style ...

With high-definition television about to hit the region, one wonders whether the free-to-air apparatus will still be functional come 2011. After all, when it swept the market in 2000, a lot of people were left behind, having nothing to show except white elephant dishes on rooftops.

Just wondering, though. Don’t want to cause hysteria—or disturbia, as Rihanna says. For now you can rush to catch the rhythm —

Jermain Ndhlovu is a communications student based in Harare

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