Durban – If there's hope for South Africa's local television industry – beyond mere advertiser-funded productions, product placement filled TV trash and bake a dozen cookie cutter reality shows – it’s to be found in nifty new TV dramas like the SABC's new Uzalo telenovela which started Monday night at 20:30 on SABC1.
The telenovela is shot entirely on location in the streets of KwaZulu-Natal's poor yet vibrant F-section of KwaMashu and on elaborate and finely detailed sets constructed within three months on a sound stage in Newlands in Durban.
It is production company Stained Glass Pictures' attempt to prove that local TV drama on South African television can be done successfully outside of Johannesburg.
Viewers will find the story instantly compelling when it kicks off at the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison. On 11 February 1990 at the Queen Anne hospital, two baby boys are born, but accidentally switched.
Now, 24 years later, they find themselves in very different circumstances without them – nor their "families" the Mdletshe's and the Zulu's – aware that they've got the wrong son.
Uzalo at 20:30 as the SABC and SABC1's first local telenovela is taking on Mzansi Magic's (DStv 161) popular Isibaya in the same timeslot and is getting a headstart on e.tv which is launching its first local telenovela Ashes to Ashes on 2 March at 20:00.
‘Very unique to itself’The producers are also adamant to stress that Uzalo – more akin to SABC1's popular youth drama Skeem Saam – is not going to be similar to the ratings damaged and reset Generations - The Legacy on the same channel.
"We've never worked from a departure point of 'We want to be different in this way' or we don't want to be associated with this or that. We just have a story to tell."
"It's a specific story, which happens in a specific place which is very unique to itself and we just want to tell that story the best way we can," says the production company headed by president Jacob Zuma's daughter, Gugulethu Zuma ka Ncube and Pepsi Pokane.
According to the producers, KwaMashu will be a strong "invisible" character in the telenovela written by playwright-producer Duma Ndlovu.
"KwaMashu is a character itself. It's a very specific place with its own type of feel, its own characters. In the story we really try to weave in KwaMashu as its own character so it's not just a story that could be set anywhere."
"You see it and you just know this really is KwaMashu. KwaMashu is such a hopeful, vibrant place with a character of its own."
SABC: ‘We will continue to tell different stories’"We value the stories that come out of KwaMashu; that come out of Durban; that come out of KwaZulu-Natal," says Maijang Mperwane, SABC1 channel head. "We will continue to strive to tell the different stories that out there in South Africa".
"We're the biggest channel in the country and it is because of the audiences that come out of places like KwaMashu that we are who we are today".
"By having the production of a show like this in Durban, we're trying to say let us not sit in Johannesburg and try and tell stories that purport to have meaning out of other places. Lets rather go out there and do our research and make sure that whatever stories we tell are relevant, that they resonate with audiences and that viewers are able to watch and see themselves through the stories we tell," says Mpherwane.
"Now we're adding Uzalo to the mix. We've done many other stories and we will continue to do many other stories".
"Viewership numbers play a huge role in us determining whether a story is sustainable or not. Unfortunately we can't sit and say 'Whether I like the story or not' it will continue – what the viewers say ultimate is what matter."
‘Uzalo is going to be a great story’"The performances that the cast put in, the work that the directors and the rest of the crew and writers have put in will be judged on Monday onwards. From then on viewers will be the judge whether the story stays or goes," says Mpherwane.
"We're looking forward as SABC1. We are confident that Uzalo is going to be a great story. We're confident that the response will be good."
"We got to Durban in September last year," says Gugulethu Zuma ka Ncube. "We've gone through the ups and downs of a new TV production, a new city – a city that isn't necessarily geared up yet for productions of this size, and we've made it work".
"We've come here and I'm proud to say that we've made it. We're excited. We're nervous about Monday to see what the rest of South Africa thinks of the work that we've done. It's the viewers ultimate who decide."
"So we're hopeful that viewers will like what they see and recognise the work that we've put in and Uzalo becomes a show that's not only here, but a show that's here to stay," she says.
Interesting community investmentIn an interesting departure and perhaps a first-ever for South African dramatic television, Uzalo which just finished filming episode 24 out of over 300 half hour episodes, is doing – lets call it "corporate social investment" – at the very same time as the TV production.
While some TV shows sometimes leave behind donations or sets, Uzalo is doing community upliftment at the same time as it is battling grueling production deadlines to get episodes ready for delivery and play-out on SABC1.
The telenovela – which recreated on the Newlands sound stage the imagined interiors of some of the actual buildings used for the exterior shots viewers will see – has dramatically improved the real KwaMashu buildings.
On the corner of Zulu Road and Mgobhozi Road in KwaMashu the church not only has a new roof in the place of the old one which leaked but also new doors. There's also a green lawn and a landscaped garden.
Across the road in the garden of the yellow house exterior that's used to show where the Mdeletshe's "live", new plants are also in full bloom – an echo of what’s happening in the province’s TV industry.
TV has come to KwaMashu.
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