BRIDGE THE empathy gap
Why do successful shows like Uzalo fail to cross racial and class divides? We should be able to see ourselves in others regardless of these differences, writes Jacqueline Setai
SABC1 (DStv channel 191) Monday to Wednesday, 8.30pm
Uzalo, the SABC1 telenovelaturned-soapie is an undeniable success. After its launch in 2014, ratings steadily grew and, when it overtook Generations – The Legacy, it was clear that the show was a hit.
In 2016, it reached another milestone when its audience numbers grew to 8 million viewers per episode. In any country anywhere in the world, that’s a massive success, regardless of population size or cultural and language nuances. To draw parallels to the US, when the drama Empire reached 11.54 million viewers for the season two finale in 2015, the network knew it had a winner. And when the American Idol franchise reached audiences of 13 million, it was regarded as an outand-out success. This in a market of 100 million compared with the South African market of 55 million citizens.
A big character in the show is the township of KwaMashu, the location wherein the stories and characters are set. Anyone raised in a South African township would recognise the style of the small and extended houses, the pavementless streets, roaming dogs and the many church buildings.
While unique to KwaMashu, these images carry a signature of the stockstandard township town planning and architecture. So should it come as no surprise that the viewership is 90% Nguni-speaking (isiZulu and isiXhosa) black people and that it attracts less than 5% white, Indian and coloured viewers? If 8 million South Africans tune in three times a week, could this be the kind of show that can transcend its “blackness” in the way Empire does? Unfortunately, like many other shows with vernacular-language content, while they are successful, they fail to resonate with white and the bulk of middle class black audiences.
The empathy gap between middle and working class black viewers is interesting because it challenges the stereotype that black audiences are homogenous. But it can also be that black viewers more readily buy into images of success presented by white actors due to the legacy (and conditioning?) of apartheid TV. And this is a sign once again of the failure of the rainbow nation project. White people are unable to cross the barriers of language, even with subtitled content, unable to suspend their disbelief when confronted with a cast peopled by black actors, set in locations where only black people live. Research done by an American university in 2015 to understand why black actors do not have the same success as their white counterparts found that regular white moviegoers or TV viewers find it difficult when black actors take on romantic roles or play superhero characters. The movie and TV universes are so different for these viewers that they simply cannot believe what they are seeing.
Research on the racial-empathy gap done by the University of Milano also found that there was an empathy gap between middle class black viewers and universes that portrayed mainly working class or poor black characters.
So, do we care that successful shows like Uzalo fail to cross racial and class divides? Yes, because with good storytelling, viewers should be able to see themselves in others regardless of their skin colour, language or status. But if we fail to recognise ourselves in fictional worlds and fail to empathise with fictional characters, how will we do this in our real lives?
HIT SHOW From left: Dawn Thandeka King, Nompilo Maphumulo and Naymaps Maphalala star in the second season of Uzalo