/ 4 September 2021

The day Thembe Mahlaba won an Emmy award

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Nwabisa Mda, Thembe Mahlaba and Bongeka Masango are the trio behind the YouTube channel Pap Culture. (Photo courtesy of Pap Culture)

On a Saturday morning this winter, while house-sitting and running on two hours’ sleep, Thembe Mahlaba, now based in Jo’burg, finds out she’s won a daytime Emmy award. She is one of the three women (including Nwabisa Mda and Bongeka Masango) behind local YouTube channel Pap Culture — the springboard that catapulted her here.

 Mahlaba and Mda, who both studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT), met through a mutual friend in the city. The chemistry was instant and palpable: “It just made sense … Like when somebody does something and you want to find someone you know in the room to be like: ‘Did you see that too?’ We always found each other in the room — to laugh at the same thing,” Mahlaba says. 

 In early 2015 both women were looking for a place to stay. Mahlaba moved into a spot with a spare bedroom in Little Mowbray. Mda joined her months later — symbiosis Mahlaba describes as: “Gqum. Powerful.”

With Mda’s time at UCT Radio coming to an end she was loath to let it go. She loved her work there, enjoying the engagement with people that the platform allowed. Thoughts of podcasting brewed and she broached the idea with Mahlaba, who recalls herself as being fairly shy back then. At the time she was studying a BA in film studies and drama and, later, an honours in directing.

Mahlaba acknowledges her reluctance: “I’m like, ‘Slow down. No babes – I’m behind the scenes.’ Nwabisa’s premise was, ‘Mngani, you and I can talk about anything. Put a topic here we can dice it up, chop it up, laugh at it, have opposing thoughts about it’.”

It was around this time that Masango, a videographer and Mahlaba’s high-school friend moved from completing her studies at Rhodes University, eRhini to work in Cape Town. When they hung out, together with Mda, Mahlaba shared the idea with Masango who was excited to jump on board. Serendipity clinched the deal.

Pap Culture’s origin story

Pap Culture, which turned six this year, is a deep dive into youth culture — an interrogation, an exploration, a reflection. Together the young women swivel their lense both inwards and outwards, producing prime content; content that straddles being playful, provocative and personal.

Their bio describes them as a local “entertainment hub that aims to be authentic to the storytelling of African youth culture”.

How they do this began quite informally — as conversations they enjoyed that they thought would resonate with an audience. They recorded their first episode, about Mda sharing her train experiences, and posted it to one subscriber — a milestone they celebrated. 

For Thembe Mahlaba, the recognition is a nod to the powerful women in her life. (Image courtesy of Pap Culture)

According to Mahlaba: “There was no content creation — let’s ideate; we’re gonna sit down and talk about this. [We based our content on] what we consumed, what we were excited about and what we liked.”

By the time Pap Culture had 10 subscribers, its creators couldn’t believe it. By 100 they knew they were on to something. Realising that folk were beginning to catch on, and as their own schedules became tighter, they became more intentional with their content creation. 

“The focus, organisation, and structure came from that: How do you manage schedules? How do we ideate and say: Sifuna ukhuluma ngalokhu? Can it start making sense? It was just a little bit of this and that — so ihlangana njani lento? Enyangeni if we make four videos, how do we structure that? Is there a theme? That’s how we got into the groove of thinking about stuff,” Mahlaba says.

For Mahlaba, she found her voice through this work, and through gratitude to the powerful women in her life. 

“That’s why I want to do my master’s, because now I know what I want. I know who I am. I know what I feel strongly and passionately about,” she says. “I have a better grip on who uThembekile is and I want to create work from this place.”

Pap Culture now has almost 13 000 subscribers and their videos have more than 1.1-million views.

The game-changing moments

“Why will people care?” became the premise when the trio were pitching and exploring content ideas with each other. This guiding principle, in addition to being on trend, relevant and entertaining, informed the themes they explored over time, as well as their content segments, which included conversations with guests, vox pops while covering events, a car ride with a guest addressing the notes of particular themes, as well as curated questions, tweets and topical talking points, during which each member of the trio offers their thoughts and responses.

It’s this foundation that has led to numerous accolades, including being approached to each contribute an essay to the collection Feminism — South Africans Speak their Truth. “To get to a place of understanding we all come from a place of not understanding and surely that’s a perspective to speak on … A lot of the conversations we’ve had have been around the chapter we’re in, surprisingly, which is on inclusion and exclusion,” Mda said in one of their videos. 

They’ve also spoken at TEDxCTWomen. Describing the process, Masango said: “We’re three very different people and they gave us a blank canvas. We had to decide how we were going to skin the cat it could’ve gone in any direction.” They distilled their options to tracing a journey from the past to the future about learning and unlearning the role of women in society.

Pap Culture was also recognised, in 2017, as part of the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans in the arts and culture category. Their accolades include being shortlisted for two Cannes Lions for the Libresse Vagina Varsity Campaign, for which they also received three Loerie awards.

Winning the Daytime Emmy 

“That was insane,” Mahlaba exclaims.

She found out about the win while house-sitting with Mda and friend Modiegi Manong. Having struggled to find a platform that was streaming the awards, the three spent that night with eyes glued to a Twitter feed, refreshing for updates and news of the outcome of the category. Unable to stay up any longer, Mda crashed at around midnight. The other two friends followed suit at about 3am that Saturday morning.

“I was tired. The category wasn’t coming up. We’d not slept, and it was the next day. If we won, we’d find out the next morning too because that wouldn’t change. Asilaleni,” Mahlaba says.

A pressing bladder woke her two hours later. After a bit of a mental back and forth she decided to check the feed for updates. More scrolling. And then: “Mangithi ntla I’m like ‘Oh my God’.” For their YouTube Originals series Creators for Change with Michelle Obama: Girls’ Education they won an outstanding daytime non-fiction special award at the annual daytime Emmy awards. The Girls Opportunity Alliance, a programme run by the Obama Foundation, took a seat at the table with YouTube creators Mahlaba, Liza Koshy (Liza on Demand) and Prajakta Koli (Mostly Sane). 

More than 98-million adolescent girls around the world are not in school. Each content creator visited grassroots organisations working towards closing this gap in Vietnam, India and Namibia, respectively. Each episode, geared at catalysing conversation, tracks these women as they interview young girls about the obstacles in their pursuit for education and their future-focused goals. This nomination was one of about 3 000 submissions selected by more than 1 000 peers from various sectors of the television industry.

On finding out about the win, Mahlaba says: “I let out a little scream because it’s also five in the morning in Jo’burg you don’t want to scare people. I take a screenshot and that’s when I start posting and texting to say: ‘Oh my God we won an Emmy.’ Then I sent it to my mom, who was still asleep, and I couldn’t wake her because it wasn’t an emergency … I’m overwhelmed and debilitated by tiredness now. I go back to sleep.”

Manong wakes up and sees the message first. Excited, she screams. Mda rises with: ‘We won?!’ Now it’s a whole thing. “And that’s when we went live [on Instagram] and celebrated,” Mahlaba says. “My mom also called. I really appreciated the love. It was beautiful and felt very intimate, as much as it was on online. I still feel like my community online is very intimate. People I would have a drink with, abantu engizwana nabo who I talk to often in the DMs and probably have on WhatsApp. I was happy about that and didn’t feel like l was sharing this with strangers. It felt genuine ukuthi abantu bebesijabulele.”

At the table with Michelle Obama

At the Obamas’ favourite restaurant in Washington, DC, the creators are getting made-up and mic’ed up in preparation for their conversation with former first lady of the US, Michelle Obama. No cellphones are allowed in the room and the secret service has swept the restaurant multiple times. 

Thembe Mahlaba worked with Michelle Obama on the special Creators for Change with Michelle Obama: Girls’ Education. Photo: YouTube

Overwhelmed by the moment, Mahlaba calls Mda to help to calm her nerves: “I was crying and uNwabisa was dudu-zering me and was like: ‘Babes, you’ve been chosen, uGod uthe nguwe lo. Don’t let this feeling overshadow the type of conversation you’re having there. So I don’t know how you’re gonna get into it, but get into it … Show up for yourself’.”

Mahlaba says that while doing the dry run at the table, there was a stand-in who sat in Obama’s seat so the creators would have a sense of where they’d be looking and the cameras could get their angles right.

“And, gqum, that reaction that you see from us as she walks in is real. Okay?! She did not do it twice. I was stunned by it all. I was like: ‘Oh my God, it’s Michelle Obama. Oh my God, she is so tall …’ She comes in, gives you a hug, sits down. We just go straight into the conversation, and I’m like: ‘So we’re just not gonna freak out? Okay, cool’.

“The mind conversation and the one that’s coming out of your mouth is probably just crazy … Michelle Obama’s knee was touching my knee under the table. I wasn’t okay. Because when she was done, I was like, to Liza ‘I don’t know about y’all, but our knees were touching.’ We had a constant connection the whole time we were filming. She had the choice to move her knee, but she didn’t. That’s what I’m saying. Crazy.”