/ 6 October 2017

The significance of being seen

Dedicated to queer content: Siyanibona is a new television show that encourages discussion about gender
Dedicated to queer content: Siyanibona is a new television show that encourages discussion about gender

Finding content that reflects your reality is difficult. Finding content on television that reflects your own particular experience with identity is even more difficult.

Despite ongoing developments in queer advocacy on the African continent, queer communities remain largely underrepresented, particularly on television. Although our stories do make appearances in the media, they are often one-dimensional, Eurocentric and only included for a “slice of diversity”.

Iranti-Org, a queer human-rights visual media organisation in Johannesburg, is responding to this void with a new television show titled Siyanibona. Partnered with Soweto TV, a platform that has an audience reach of four million, the show will run until December after its launch last month.

Dedicated to queer content, Siyanibona’s 13 episodes examine the state of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and other (LGBTI+) advocacy and life in Africa, highlighting stories of discrimination and the people who come together to fight it. So far, the show has tackled LGBTI+ hate crimes, intersex awareness and transgender visibility, to name but a few.

Jabulani Pereira, the director of Iranti-Org and executive producer of the show, says that, “over the past five years, Iranti has made over 100 short films. These have been packaged for Siyanibona alongside two main presenters in order to encourage discussion around gender, sex and sexuality.” As a way to approach topics that aren’t traditionally talked about in households, Siyanibona has created an opportunity to have conversations about queerness in the privacy of people’s homes.

Pereira describes the show as “localised stories, many of which are in indigenous languages, which are about the queer community, by the queer community”. Siyanibona marks Iranti’s first entry into mainstream television, which comes with its own difficulties.

Pereira admits that the organisation has had problems with financing the project. “Many donors want to fund queer work that is strictly and traditionally policy-based. They do not see the opportunities that arise in relation to main-stream media and its ability to reach audiences.”

One such opportunity that Siyanibona takes advantage of is in using a language about LGBTI+ issues that is simple and accessible to a wide audience. By breaking down terminology in understandable ways, the show brings out the humanity in the lives it showcases. No doubt its ability to do this is partly owed to the input of the team, who are all members of the LGBTI+ community, from the scriptwriters to the people behind the camera.

Alongside the queer production team, each episode ends with a practical tool, be it a response to a question or a key resource to contact. Tani Anakak, one of the show’s copresenters, comments that a forthcoming episode on World Aids Day was a “particularly powerful one to shoot” as a result of a question that is asked about HIV and healthcare. Anakak, who has lost a number of friends to Aids, said it was “great to discuss and create awareness around the advancements in medicine in relation to HIV, such as PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis], a medication HIV-negative people can take to help prevent them from becoming HIV positive”.

Agreeing with this appreciation of the show’s ability to affect people’s lives, another copresenter, Kumkani Sivu Siwisa, notes how Siyanibona is something they would want their family to watch.

“The show sends the message that, when we are advocating for the rights of LGBTI+ people, we are advocating for the rights of black people, women and children.”

Siyanibona is a visual reminder of the interconnectedness of oppression. Its multidimensional focus and approach make the show stand out because it acknowledges that representation alone is not liberation. Instead, it recognises that representation is the starting point from which to effect change. By portraying the realities that queer Africans face, the show provides truthful depictions that are empowering and informative for everyone.

Looking to the future, the team is optimistic that Siyanibona will continue to have an effect after it finishes airing on Soweto TV.

“We want to make the show available, free of charge, on our YouTube channel. Possibly also reach out to other mainstream television to create more queer content and expand the work,” Pereira says.

Siyanibona’s importance is multidimensional. For many, the authentic queer stories will be significant because they may be the first or only ones in which people either see experiences similar to theirs, or learn about experiences different from their own. It is a sincere hope that the show has the ability to transform feelings of confusion, loneliness and fear into safety, affirmation and hope.

Siyanibona is on Soweto TV, DSTV channel 251, every Wednesday at 8pm, repeating on Thursday at 9.30pm