Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 106-126
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Theater for Development and TV Nation:
Notes on an Educational Soap Opera in South Africa
"South Africa—a world in one country." This sunny slogan of the South African Tourist Board is also a sober reminder that post-apartheid—or, more accurately, post-anti-apartheid—South Africa contains within its borders at least two worlds. Development and underdevelopment or, in the current global vernacular, North and South, are separated not only by residual racial boundaries but also by physical as well as socioeconomic barriers between rich and poor, especially in Johannesburg, Africa's wealthiest city. Due in part to these barriers, North and South collide perhaps more vividly in the national media, especially on television, than they do on the streets. On television, which reaches the urban half and some peri-urban parts of the population, sounds and images of global consumer culture (in the format of commercials as well as narrative fiction) interrupt, literally and figuratively, the documentary representation of national history or daily life. 1 Fictional series, especially American soap operas, score generally higher ratings than local documentaries, but the latter have usually received more attention from policy-makers, producers, and critics. 2 This is the case in part because documentaries, especially histories of the struggle such as Ulibambe Lingashoni (Hold up the [setting] sun, 1994), a quasi-official history of the African National Congress (ANC), liberation movement turned governing party after the historic election in April 1994, invoke the moral authority of the theater, film, and video of the anti-apartheid years, and in part because they currently help to fulfil the mandate not merely for local content, but, in the language of the 1997 Green Paper on Broadcasting, for the larger goal of "nation-building" through a "broadcasting system [that is] relevant, accessible, diverse, and responsive to the communication needs of the country" (DPTB Green Paper ch.1).
In comparison to documentaries of national history, or of daily life in such series as Ordinary People (1994-96) or Ghetto Stories (1998-), soap opera may seem an unlikely site for nation-building. Alternatively celebrated or execrated for its domestic and sentimental themes, its blatantly commercial format, and its alleged interpellation of women as consumers, soap opera would appear to draw viewers away from an engagement with the "imagined community" of the nation that Benedict Anderson finds in "the mind of each citizen" in the era of mass communication (15). 3 Certainly the popularity of American serials like The Bold and the Beautiful, one of the highest-rated shows and a point of reference in popular lore as well as in a well-known stage play, So What's New? (1991) by Fatima Dike, seems to stem from the pleasure in the glamorous otherness of its characters and their elaborate intrigues afforded to urban and urbanizing viewers grappling with the precarious conditions of inner-city [End Page 106] Johannesburg or peripheral informal settlements. 4 But close to The Bold and the Beautiful in the ratings is Soul City, a serial that began in August 1994 under the auspices of the Institute for Urban Primary Health Care (IUPHC), in association with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the parastatal national broadcaster. This serial combines soap opera's cliff-hanger dramaturgy, sudden revelations, and sentimental portrayal of long-suffering survivors pitted against unrepentant villains with scenarios of personal and social dramas that focus on social health issues from smoking to AIDS, from one child swallowing kerosene to another struggling to talk about sexual abuse; it uses urban South African English leavened with vernaculars, especially isiZulu and Sesotho, and locates the drama in a peri-urban informal settlement, as well as the local clinic, and occasionally in more affluent settings such as a doctor's home. 5 Broadcast for three seasons (1994, 1996, 1997), as a half-hour serial on mother, child, and youth care and in 1999 as an hour-long dramatic series focused on violence against women, Soul City has been...