Staying sane in a trying industry

"I never thought that I could be on TV": Television mogul Diliza Moabi reflects on his journey. (Delwyn Verasamy)

"I never thought that I could be on TV": Television mogul Diliza Moabi reflects on his journey. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Diliza Moabi makes his son wear his pants sagging. Young Kwame, with black hair thick as sheep’s wool, doesn’t like it. He opts, regularly, to readjust them to their “rightful” place. His television director father puts them right back, hanging low, to remind the boy of his place in the world — “the system” where “the man” makes the rules.

On the phone, Moabi (39), born in Vryburg, can speak for well over 10 minutes on a single idea. Once he called to talk about a movie script he had just finished — at 6am. On a weekend.

Moabi is short, no taller than 1.5m. He dons military fatigues, the aspirational Nineties-era self-styled grimy rap don.

Moabi’s laptop and hard drives store more than 10 years’ worth of archival footage, ranging from Simphiwe Dana’s pre-Gallo days to material filmed for Vuma: A Music Revolution, the SABC series on the legendary Kalawa record label, which Moabi edited, as well as the first and second seasons of Sisters with Soul, which profiled the women who heal us through music, from Zonke and Zu of Zuko Collective to Msaki.

A recent episode of his current project, Brothers and Sisters with Soul, pairs the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, Thandi Ntuli, with Nduduzo Makhathini, a previous recipient of the award.

“At some point, I realised that all I have been doing over the past 10 years is chasing musicians,” says Moabi, some two hours into the late lunch we’re enjoying. That speaking at length over the phone, he does in person, too. It’s to drive his point home — to make sure that you don’t miss out on the nitty-gritties. Call it the editor’s eye.

The world was at odds with Moabi from the jump. He was born in a far-flung township in the North West. His encounters with white people were mostly of police coming to arrest his sister, a United Democratic Front member in the 1980s, every year around June — to quell protests commemorating the June 16 student uprisings.

The first time he watched colour TV, he was visiting an aunt who lived in a village north of Vryburg. For the most part, TV1, the only channel they had access to, showed people who spoke either Afrikaans or English. People who didn’t look like him.

This changed one evening when the Poitier/Cosby classic Uptown Saturday Night came on the screen. He was 12 when that happened.

“That’s when my life changed. Up until that point, I never thought that I could be on TV, or that black people knew how to make TV.”

Dramas such as Bophelo ke Semphekgo later took some of that dream away when he saw that, even though we can be on television, the writing and directing and filming and all production-related duties would still be handled by people who looked like the ones who were always arresting his sister.

It’s this reality of a pervasive violence that keeps him sagging his son’s pants, despite his protestations. “You are different. The sooner you realise that, come to terms with it, and start thinking up creative way[s] around it, the sooner you’ll be free” is the lesson he says he’s instilling.

“I have loved TV with all my heart from a young age, to a point where I’m still getting into trouble now, because I have got kids and I don’t regulate TV. I look at it this way: growing up in a small town, I wouldn’t have had the aspirations that I had. If you took out TV for me, I don’t think I’d be sitting here.”

Moabi recalls his move to Jozi as an experience that was both exciting and difficult.

“You’re leaving a small town for a big city. You have to deal with a new country. But, after that, the reality hits and the world tells you a different story,” he says.

Moabi found out through word of mouth back then that the Tshwane University of Technology, then the Pretoria Technikon, offered television and film studies.

“I applied, then went for an interview. That interview continued on the journey that kept saying that this shit is not possible, you don’t belong.”

He later heard of the Afda film school and applied. He aced the aptitude tests, but couldn’t clear the final hurdle.

“Fine, I got accepted into school. But now, they have a bursary fund that I had to apply for. They were like, “Hey, man, we like what you did, what you wrote, but we think you’re gonna have a problem in class because your English is weak.”

The school was looking for the “right” type of black student.

“I remember the words they used: ‘We worry that you won’t be able to comprehend in class.’ I’m not gonna lie to you, I didn’t know what comprehend meant,” Moabi says with a chuckle.

He bought himself a dictionary afterwards. He started reading newspapers, buying the Sowetan religiously. He stopped listening to Motsweding FM and switched to Metro FM.

He was getting himself “cultured” — attuned to the rainbow nation dreams cushioned by a black-child-it’s-possible narrative.

He found a school eventually, but dropped out when he felt that he had stopped learning. He has proceeded on that path, getting into things, doing them until they stop feeding his curiosity, then moving on.

It’s the premise on which his production company Wanaya Visuals is based. He says it’s a halfway house; a stepping stone towards greater things for women editors, directors and producers. Because, and he repeats this mantra, your talent as a black person doesn’t amount to shit in a world that refuses to see you.

He says they’ll point to one black person in a managerial position and call it progress. That person, incidentally, will also happen to speak like them, have gone to the same school as them, and hang around with them quite regularly.

“I don’t have a problem with all the challenges we face on a daily basis as black people, as a black person.”

Moabi’s ire is reserved for the other, “better” blacks. “It’s almost like a very exclusive thing now, like I know this, so I’m a better black than you. It shouldn’t be on that tip, you get my point?”

After our lunch, Moabi will head back to his office to do one of a million things, from preproduction of the South African Hip Hop Awards to finalising Brothers and Sisters with Soul episodes. There has been, so far, in addition to Ntuli and Makhathini, the pairing of Melo B Jones with Ms Isis, Itai Hakim with Linda Buthelezi (formerly with BLK JKS, now fronting his God’s Sons and Daughter band) and Johnny Cradle with Shef & The Kitchen.

“I wish I had a masterclass to say: ‘Yo, this is the shit that you’re gonna be dealing with. Get empowered as an individual, from the word go. So when you have to deal with the inevitable racism, you’re like, ha! man, that shit’s been going on for 400 years’.”

Brothers and Sisters with Soul is on SABC1 at 10pm every Tuesday

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