In 1998, actor and playwright Obed Baloyi premiered his debut play Ga-Mchangani at the Market Theatre Laboratory. Using a tragically humorous Jim-comes-to-Jozi plot, the play highlights the stereotypes that Vatsonga people are dealt, with the objective of exposing the tribalism at play in South Africa.
This othering can be seen seeping into the television space through the roles that Xitsonga-speaking actors often take on. These are often there to add humour or to fortify stereotypes. Consider how Muvhango cast Charles Baloyi to play Bobo, a degenerate, low-down criminal without agency. There is also Obed Baloyi’s character in the series Ga Re Dumele: instead of being fuelled by him saying something chuckle-worthy, his monologues are accompanied by a laugh track because of how he has been made to say things. Both shows air on SABC 2.
In a 2017 article from The Sunday Independent, Sam Mathe wrote about actors who have unwittingly taken on the role of activism, leading with Baloyi’s Ga-Mchangani as a reference. “Xitsonga and other minority languages continue to be treated as local television’s stepchildren despite their official status in the Constitution.”
Last week, SABC 2 premiered South Africa’s first Xitsonga drama series Giyani — Land of Blood in honour of the 3.5-million Vatsonga people in South Africa.
A few weeks before its premiere President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned it in his Human Rights Day speech when he said South Africans are tasked with conserving languages that are in danger of becoming extinct.
Created by Phathutshedzo Makwarela and Gwydion Beynon of Tshedza Pictures, Giyani unpacks the timely topic of land redistribution by honing in on the Baloyi and Mudau families and their rivalling land claim dispute over a banana plantation.
Inspiration for Giyani hit Makwarela when he was driving to Bushbuckridge. He saw a banana plantation just after White River and became curious about its ownership. The inspiration was then used to respond to the SABC’s call for telenovela proposals in 2014.
“South Africa today is going through a difficult change. Issues of ownership of land and the struggles of economic freedom are all themes that are part of the show,” Makwarela said in a press statement about Giyani. “[This show] talks about South Africa today, who we are and how we have allowed ourselves to be torn apart by greed. But all this drama is told through a minority language and that fact is spellbinding for me. As a Muvenda, I know what it’s like growing up without hearing people speak my language on TV … it’s a show that is giving a voice to people who didn’t have a voice on television for what feels like forever.”
In addition to Xitsonga-speaking actors Obed and Charles Baloyi, other cast members include Linah “Ebony” Ngcobo, Susan Maeko, Fumani Shilubana and Glennis Mabuza. As fluent speakers of Xitsonga, these actors highlight the poetic potential in the language’s preference for, and reliance on, idioms and euphemisms over saying things as they are. Unfortunately, the flow of dialogue is sometimes interrupted by the producer’s decision to cast non-Xitsonga people in roles that require a Xitsonga speaker.
To paint an authentic picture of Limpopo, Giyani’s cast also includes Khelobedu and Tshivenda speakers.
In addition to bringing land conversations to the fore, the producers hope to use the series to address the clashes between Tshivenda- and Xitsonga-speakers in Limpopo.
In 2013, the survival of residents in Malamulele village, with regard to basics such as public transport, job security and access to public healthcare, depended on whether one spoke Xitsonga or Xivenda. Similar tensions rose in Bungeni village in 2016. And from 2017 through to 2018, Vuwani village was plagued by violent conflicts between the two language groups.
After five years of research, writing and casting, the result of this series is a sincere take on Tsonga culture.
Giyani does not beg for its spot in South Africa’s night-time soap opera schedule among Muvhango, Skeem Saam, Uzalo, The River, Isibaya or The Throne. This is because it does not mimic the cinematography, writing, pace, placing or themes of its contemporaries. Instead, it adds to one of the most significant components of all these shows by capturing and disseminating the country’s linguistic and cultural diversity.
Giyani — Land of Blood airs on SABC 2 from Monday to Wednesday at 9.30pm