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

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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

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