The recent exchange between ‘the people’s bae’ South African Member of Parliament and Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi (PhD) and a candidate for the SABC board Rachel Kalidass, got me thinking about the politics of representation, race and class in the country.
During the interview ‘the people’s bae‘ leaned into his mic and asked, ‘what do you think about Tjovitjo?” The respondent Kalidass, a chartered accountant and former SABC board member evidently flustered by his question, batted her eyes lids behind clear thin glasses and then answered the MP with her own question “I’m sorry, what?”
After a few rounds of clarification, Kalidass who is included in the final list of 12 names recommended to serve on the SABC board, eventually answered that not only does she not know who or what Tjovitjo is she is, in fact, more inclined to watch SABC 3 which is a channel geared towards urban metropolitan South Africans – who are global citizens, well read, well-travelled and earn on average over 17 thousand rands a month (LSM 7-10). Tjovitjo is aired on SABC 1 which targets the often-rural peri urban working class South Africans, with some primary education and earn between one thousand and 6 thousand rand a month (LSM 1-6).
The question and her answer were laughed off by the parliamentary panel. But it got people on twitter tweeting on opposite lines of the fence. Some argued that she is not a board member of the SABC 3 channel only and should rather stay home while others countered that she can’t possibly be expected to know all programming on SABC’s numerous platforms.
Be that as it may. I sight this incident which is possibly innocuous in the context of everything else that’s happening both within government and at the SABC, because it speaks directly to what concerns me the most about the state of our nation. The jarring, growing and consistent disconnect between those who are elected to serve or work for the public’s interest and the actual public.
Kalidass and her colleagues are faced with a mammoth of task of restoring the image, reputation and credibility of the public-state- broadcaster from a long history of scandals, mismanagement, corruption, undue political interference and censorship which led to the firing of its most controversial Chief Operations Officer (COO) to date, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the purging of the SABC board, the firing of SABC8 journalists who blew the whistle against increased censorship in the broadcaster’s news division. Censorship which later led to the untimely death of SABC8 journalist Suna Venter three months ago.
Viewed in this historical context, Tjovitjo a 26-part drama series about the lives of a group dancers amatjovitjo, who live in peri-urban-poverty-ridden-opportunity-less squatter camps who use dance as way to not only express their frustration with their lives but to overcome them – is the only good news story to have come out of the SABC in recent months. The drama series drew more than 5 million viewers for its first episode breaking the SABC’s own records since Yizo-Yizo, a popular youth drama series which aired in 1999-2004.
While watching episode three of the series it felt so real I cried real ones when one of the protagonists – a young unemployed school dropout and mother who pays for her child’s transportation to school with sexual favours – broke down crying saying, “I’m tired of this life, every day I must hustle, hustle, hustle for everything.” Her mother who sat quietly by responded: “don’t cry my child everyone is living this life.” Everyone must hustle.
Despite the positive reviews which praised the producers and actors for their brilliant artistry. I realized how exhausted I was by this seemingly never-ending story of black poverty. I began to think to myself – if I never see another inspirational story of South Africans dancing and singing their way through the dusty streets of some township, ghetto, crime ridden, corrupt, poverty-stricken, hungry smiling, disease laden squatter camp – it will be too soon. Too soon indeed.
Despite the many misgivings I may have about the stereotypes which persist in the series and questions of whether we are not in some ways continuing to monetize the anxieties and suffering of black people. I also know this:
TjoviTjo is about the 30 million South Africans who are currently living in poverty, the majority of whom are black (women) people who watch SABC1 for entertainment. It depicts in real and tangible terms what the government and the ruling party ANC have failed to do and still need to do. This is what Tjovitjo represents. The lived experiences of more than half of the country’s population.
Like Kalidass I myself am inclined towards the upwardly mobile educated lifestyle populated with people who are travelling the world and read books for leisure, who isn’t? Except that I have been there before. I have lived among those people who reside in the forgotten wastelands of our rainbow nation and together we met the glare of hopelessness in the eye and danced sePansula by candle light until midnight to while away the time. We danced, rehearsed every chance we could to stave off hunger or the desire to do something more damaging to our prospects. We danced against despair and we danced for survival. I know how significant it is to shout or hear screams of tjovitjo!!! Amid whistles and claps of appreciation from friends as we fall into step together. So, I cannot afford not to know. I cannot afford to look away and as a public representative, neither can she. Because the only hope we all have of changing this particular story is to face it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try to understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
― Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living