‘When I started in 1983, the SABC was very male dominated,” says Clara Nzima, who has recently retired as head of channel at SABC 1. She believesit was the injection of women’senergy into the working space that relieved it of hardened attitudes.
“When I got to work for a female manager things changed, there was more empathy. There was interest in developing people, be it externally or internally.”
Nzima moved up through the ranks of the SABC, from her initial role as production secretary. This Q&A recountsher journey.
What was the journey like from production secretary to doing your own productions?
I started as a production secretary in the youth and children’s department [but] there was some restructuring. I was redeployed to the dubbing department, as a translator there. While I was there, there was a need to translate a script in the youth drama department and then I was recommended, and that’s how I got into drama. When I went to the meeting, the manager said: “I’d like you to read the script and tell me your thoughts about it.” When I came back to discuss my thoughts, she said: “Okay, you’re not going to translate, you’re going to rewrite the script.”
This manager, yes, she was white, but she was a visionary in her own time. The problem was, most of the drama scripts at the time were written by white people and then translated. But sometimes that doesn’t quite work, in terms of point of view. When she said “you’re going to rewrite”, it was quite a challenge for me. So that became my nine-to-five.
At the end of the day me, her and the producers would go over the script, have a discussion, critique it and improve whatever. That went on for three seasons of Zikhethele, a youth drama series based in a school of the performing arts. So that’s how I got into the other side, but it was all internal, in the SABC. [Zikhethele ran from 1987 to 1989.]
What was the prevalence of outside production companies at the time?
They were there but this was just to change the point of view of the material at the time;it had to be done in-house. We used to write but as the industry developed we could no longer do that from the inside, because it would be like being a referee and a player.
But one of the projects we did do in-house was to train four people, in terms of writing, producing and directing, but doing it practically, on real dramas. So these four people would have to write three episodes, each from scratch.
Two of those people are still operating in the industry. One of them is Neo Matsunyane and the other one is Archibald Dimzana. One of them passed away, and the fourth one —I’m not sure where he is — Vusi Dibakwane. Vusi, he was one of the initial producers, I think, on Muvhango. He’s done some others as well. Those were the kinds of things that happened to develop talent at the SABC.
How did working on Zikhethele change your prospects?
Well, I had the opportunity to live and write, and it was fulfilling to do it from the inside and help to develop others from the inside. I chose to stay there and do that. That process empowered me to understand drama and the impact it can have on people.
The role of commissioning editor, you did that with Generations in its inception. Was that something that came naturally from the process of being involved in drama, or did it take you a long time to be equipped for that role?
That came from being involved in the process. As the SABC developed, it also tried to be on par with other players. The roles and naming conventions were looked at. Through naming conventions, people were called editors, because that’s what we did as well, we edited scripts. I did that for a few years.
What pivotal shows did you guide in the right direction?
We did Dynamite Diepkloof Dudes, which was a group of guys on bicycles who solved crimes in Diepkloof, if you knew children’s books like the Famous Five or something. We then moved from just Zulu to [other] African languages. I did some Setswana dramas such as Tshwaraganang. Then came the proposal for Generations. I was the first commissioning editor there, and for Emzini Wezinsizwa.
Those were exciting times for me, because the country was changing and democracy was approaching, so the point of view in storytelling also had to change. It was a world of possibilities, in terms of Generations. At that time you were seeing Herd Bouys, the advertising agency, being established, and I think that was the inspiration, largely, for Generations. It was to say it’s possible to own an advertising agency, which was another white-dominated industry. That, for me, was exciting.
On the other hand, you had Emzini Wezinsizwa, where we looked at ourselves and laughed at ourselves. It was also using things that were happening in the country, like Codesa [Convention for a Democratic South Africa], and playing around with those from a hostel point of view. Emzini was quite remarkable because even though it was set in a hostel, its appeal cut across the economic lines.
For us, it just showed the importance of relevance in our stories. When it speaks to them without laughing at them, people will watch. So for SABC 1 that distinction became important, to look at whether this thing is laughing at us or laughing with us. That is the guide we always used when did sitcoms.
How did the SABC change with people’s changing attitudes? For example, I read that Yizo Yizo was so controversial that people were asking for it to be pulled. How did you deal with conservatism around sex and violence?
Personally, I don’t think it is important to be too graphic. There are some things that you only have to suggest and people will get, whether it be violence or something else, you don’t have to go graphic. What we discovered was that when it came to sex, our viewers are very sensitive to those things.
The other thing is our viewers could watch the Bold and the Beautiful and see those things happening, but put them in a local production and they complain. I think we have learned, over the years, to just respect our audiences.
Yes, we will draw from what is happening in the country, but it’s also important to give tools to help people with what they were dealing with in the stories, so that it’s not just pure entertainment or pure reflection of what’s going on, but finding a way to resolve issues. When we did research, our audiences always told us,“we want to be educated”. That was important to us, to do both at the same time.
I heard you say in an interview that you sometimes used your daughter as a barometer to understand what was happening in terms of youth culture.
My daughter was just a by-the-way, because she was of that age and had an opinion. However, SABC 1 being a youth channel, it was key for us to be on the pulse through research and experiential things, having events on the ground, conversations with young people. But research was key, because what is in today is out tomorrow. That demographic is very difficult to keep track of. You have to find ways of listening to them.
In your role as head of channel, what were some of the things that you were able institute?
It was important for us to remain number one as a channel, and what sets us apart is our content. It was important to instil our DNA with our content providers, including our people internally. Who SABC was, was our audiences. We always said that the youth’s problems were our problems. We had to respond to their needs. In the period, that was very important for me. The competition has grown and we are all on the surface, doing the same thing. You had to find some thing that set you apart from the rest.
What was that thing for you?
It is something of a trade secret!
How are TV-on-demand services affecting the SABC?
It should bother us, not to a large extent, but we should be cognisant of the fact that our audiences are watching content from multiple devices and therefore it is important for us to be available on multiple devices. It’s something the SABC is working on, but it is important. It’s not something we can ignore.
How well do you think you have done in terms of getting women more visible on TV, and ushering in TV that sees them play more credible roles that reflect their complexity?
It’s important to turn stereotypes on their head. It’s important to put them in leading roles, occupying important roles behind the scenes also, encouraging women writers, directors and producers. As a channel, we are not doing badly on that front.
What experiences prepared you for the role of head of channel?
As a commissioning editor you have to have an idea and an influence on where the budget is spent. Even when the production is done, you have an influence on how it is marketed. The journey starts from being a commissioning editor and moving to programme manager. The roles and responsibilities just grow even more. Programme manager can be administrative, but you are not far removed from content.
Programme manager is a critical role, because your strength as a channel is as strong as the programme manager. They inform the content the channel will transmit. The development goes through you. It is the cornerstone of the channel. It prepared me for the head of channel role.