Axing Days of Our Lives may not decolonise our TVs

No one really knows when it started (OK, not no one – someone does; they just haven’t bothered to update the Wiki page), but on July 20 2016 the sands will finally run out of the hourglass that has looped on our TV screens probably for as long as the ANC has been an unbanned liberation movement.

The Hortons, Bradys, DiMeras, Kiriakises (if they still even exist, bar in their Bo Brady proxy) and all their on-screen haters and hangers-on – Vivian Alamain, Estelle Perrault, Lexie Carver et al – will cease to exist for South Africans, by decree of the Lord of Mordor, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, aka the de facto chief executive of the SABC.

The axing of Days of Our Lives is part of his legacy project – 90% local content across all platforms belonging to the public broadcaster.

It’s a bittersweet moment for many as we celebrate the creation of space for locally produced content, while also mourning the loss of a nostalgic link to more innocent times.

Someone on Twitter asked: “Where were you when Marlena was possessed?” – referring to that great cultural moment, slated by critics everywhere for its farfetchedness even by soapie terms, yet indelibly etched into the memories (and hearts) of so many South Africans that it’s practically part of our national identity.

Well, pre-born free identity, anyway – later generations will have other things to mark their lives, like things falling and staying down. But for millennial elders and older soap fans, we’ll always have Father John.

I’m also wary to celebrate too soon. Motsoeneng has emerged as a very unlikely hero in this decolonisation project, but the outcomes of his grand announcements have left very much to be desired. I suppose we should all have learned our lesson when he promised raises to the cast of the original Generations, which precipitated a walkout when dololo (no) raises materialised.

I celebrated this moment. I saw it as the creation of much-needed space for something more refined than the Morokas and their never-ending rich people problems.

But what happened instead? Not only was Generations revived as Generations: The Legacy, but we got a second Generations (aka Ashes to Ashes) on a rival channel that identified an opportunity to snatch a piece of the R1.5‑million per episode ad revenue gap left by the original.

A similar outcome has transpired on radio. When I got into the car on the morning of May 12 2016, I immediately sought out the local radio station, TruFM, to test whether the promise of 90% local music was true.

The first thing that struck me was how refreshing it was to hear a South African station sounding “local” and not trying to sound like some hybrid between 5FM/MetroFM and a community radio station. The content and the music seemed to gel beautifully and I was happy.

My happiness was short-lived. It wasn’t long before every show started to sound like a hip-hop show – alternating between Kwesta’s Ngud’ and Emtee’s Roll Up, interspersed with either a Zahara or Nathi hit here and there. Not only on TruFM but across every SABC station with a traditionally black listenership, you will only find these tracks playing.

It’s not clear where the fault lies – with music compilers or radio show hosts? My hope for the 90% rule was that compilers would take the time to source the truly amazing local music that wasn’t getting any airplay on the radio.

Acts like The Brother Moves On, Msaki and Umlilo are almost unknown outside niche communities in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Without a big record label willing to use their might (and, it’s been reported, their money) to convince stations to play their music, their music is lost to the vast majority.

In the end, we get same-same sounding music playing all over the airwaves and our minds are numbed, like watching Generations or Days of Our Lives. Instead of decolonising content, our radios stations are playing it safe and relying on the big record labels to dictate what is good and worthy of our ears. Compilers and radio DJs are relegated to mere administrators and talking heads.

What chance is there, then, for TV content? Will we not see the same safe outcomes of recycled storylines borrowed from the American canon? Or will we see more risk-taking on the part of the commissioning editors at the SABC? As the kids say: “Find out on the next episode of Dragonball Z.”

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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