Both the sacred and profane are fair game on reality TV

With the boom in the reality TV, nothing happens behind closed doors any longer. Viewers have become nosey neighbours peeking through windows and listening in on “private” bedroom conversations in shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives. They watch from the sidelines as relationships are rocked in shows about paternity, such as Utatakho.

Now well into its second season on e.tv, Mahadi-Lobola offers viewers access to the private discussions that take place during lobolo negotiations. According to the show’s producer, Khulile Nxumalo, the first season had a consistent viewership of 1.5-million people.

This figure reflects the success of the emotainment in South Africa, a genre Nxumalo describes as making audiences “feel something” while being entertained. Content that falls into this genre often zooms in on the lives of ordinary people, which is why so many people relate to it. It could easily be happening to the girl next door.

SABC 1’s Khumbul’ekhaya, which follows family members who go on a search to find long-lost loved ones, has pulled at the heartstrings of South Africans for more than 12 seasons with its sad and shocking stories.

Khumbul’ekhaya describes itself as entertainment with a social conscience. With content like this already popular, Mahadi-Lobola’s human-interest stories were perfect for a hungry market.

Sacrosanct cultural practice
As gripping as emotainment may be, viewers experience a certain amount of guilt. How can we be entertained by someone else’s heartache, misery and dysfunction?

Look no further than the social media to see just how much viewers take on from TV shows that beg for compassion and empathy.

Mahadi-Lobola, however, is different because it deals with a sacrosanct cultural practice that takes place behind closed doors and is not discussed with non-family members. Opening up lobolo negotiations to the public, to strangers, seems a bit like walking in the streets naked.

But Nxumalo believes that Mahadi-Lobola serves a greater purpose than just entertainment. The show aims to correct misconceptions that often cloud the practice.

Mahadi-Lobola has the potential to open itself up to being sensationalised, because it does contain some dramatic elements, but I’m glad that we have the opportunity to showcase the various ways in which it occurs,” he says during an interview at the Urban Brew Studios in Jo’burg, where the show is produced.

It’s surprising that anyone would want to the practice publicised. Nxumalo says it can be a challenge to convince families to allow cameras into the negotiations. They promise to treat the families with “dignity and to respect the processes of the two families uniting”.

“The overall challenges are getting people to open up to the camera – and also figuring out how to make the footage functional when families request us to exit the room,” he says.

But the couples and their families that feature on the show are also happy to share their special moments because they want to document a traditional part of their nuptials.

At ease with cameras
Some couples don’t mind disclosing how much money and livestock the families agree on.

While filming the first season of Mahadi-Lobola, Nxumalo was surprised by how many family members were comfortable in front of the cameras. It was as if they had forgotten all about them.

But, he admits, there are also participants who love to play up to the cameras.

The interesting thing about programmes such as Mahadi-Lobola lies in how the viewers become like flies on the wall, entering places where they would normally not be allowed. In most lobolo negotiations, only the bride’s and groom’s uncles and aunts are allowed to be part of the discussions.

But with almost all parts of our lives being played out in front of cameras, is anything sacred any more on TV? For instance, the Mzansi Magic reality show, Utatakho, focuses on serious paternity issues. And, long after the show is over, when the viewers have forgotten all about the characters who kept them entertained, those characters, who are real people, have to continue to deal with their traumas.

Selling out our culture
Also it seems to beg the question: Are we commodifying cultural practices? What happens to a culture when its most sacred practices are commodified?

With a heavy influence of Western culture in South Africa, local emotainment TV programmes are reminders of where our culture’s position in society is.

“We are a nation that consumes a lot of foreign television products and part of the success of channels such as the M-Net group and e.tv is that they have found that nothing matches the power of local storytelling,” said Nxumalo. “Various strong local propositions have come up, propositions that keep people glued to the TV screens and I think Mahadi-Lobola is one of them.”

Mahadi-Lobola goes beyond evoking emotion; it educates viewers to some extent about the different ways of approaching a particular cultural practice.

Described as uncharted territory by Nxumalo, this show has opened the door to more TV content that will challenge what is regarded as sacrosanct.

There is no such thing as a shut door in reality TV.

Mahadi-Lobola airs on Sundays at 6.05pm on e.tv.

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