Woman on top – Clara Nzima
Head of SABC 1 CLARA NZIMA is bowing out after 35 years of contributing to and heading up Mzansi’s largest TV channel. She reflects on an illustrious journey
Sis’ Clara, as Nzima is commonly referred to in the SABC corridors, has seen the channel take on various brand positionings. From TV2, then CCTV, followed by Simunye! We Are One to Ya Mampela and more recently Mzansi Fo Sho!, Nzima has been a constant force through all these transitions.
She joined the broadcaster in 1983 after applying for a production secretary vacancy advertised in the Sowetan. At the time, she held a BA in isiZulu and Psychology from the University of Zululand and didn’t anticipate a protracted career journey. “I started out teaching English and isiZulu at Kenneth Masekela High School, in Kwa Thema, Springs. I loved the idea of being a social worker but, in a way, where I am today is social work of a different kind. Working for a public broadcaster puts one in a privileged position to influence people’s lives in a positive way,” Nzima explains.
She attributes her successful ascent up the corporate ladder to being assertive and dedicated to the bigger picture of wanting to make a change. For instance, she started out assisting producers with scripts and their productions, but passion saw her put her stamp on any script she’d touch. “I upskilled myself through the SABC’s six-month training programme where you learn everything about production — from scriptwriting to producing and directing,” she says, adding that she was named best production secretary at the end of that course. In the ‘80s, she was part of the team responsible for dubbing vernacular on foreign content.
Nzima has held various roles throughout her 35-year tenure at SABC1. Those include working in the youth and children’s drama department, to commissioning shows and later became programming manager. She cites Zikhethele as well as Mina Nawe among her top career highlights as they gave her the platform to establish herself creatively. “Zikhethele was a youth drama based in a school of performing arts, and written by the renowned Richard Beynon. They needed someone to translate the script so I came in highly recommended. I ended up rewriting the entire thing because I had the right insights into the black market. The show went on for three seasons and was 39 episodes in total.” She still can’t believe something she initially viewed as a challenge went on to scoop numerous awards.
Mina Nawe was Nzima’s own youth drama production inspired by the many teenage suicides in SA communities at the time. “The 13 episodes were aired in the early 90s and the show went on to win an IDEM Award for best script .
Not only did she pen productions and witness them come to life, but she also opened doors for many aspiring creators in the television industry. As the microcosm of the country, the SABC had to literally ‘get with the programme’ when the country was transitioning into democracy. “We wanted to get more black practitioners to tell authentic black stories, so we trained young black aspiring producers and directors,” she says. Nzima mentions that of the young group of creatives that the SABC trained during that time, Neo Matsunyane and Archie Mzazi are still practising.
She nonchalantly mentions how hard she fought for groundbreaking productions like the old Generations, Yizo Yizo and YOTV to see the light of day. “I acknowledge that everything I’ve achieved so far is amazing but with TV, you can’t claim sole responsibility for the success of something because everything boils down to team effort. I’m grateful to those who came before me because they laid a great foundation. All I had to do was take it a step further,” she continues.
Taking the SABC1 brand up a notch means constantly researching the viewer — who they are and what they expect from their favourite channel. “We live on research, evaluate our performance on a weekly basis and ask relevant questions where we need to. If our ratings drop, we always try and find out why. As the number one channel in the country, we can’t ever rest on our laurels or settle into routine,” she says. “There’s always someone trying to unseat SABC1 from its number one spot,” she quips.
Remaining at the top may be hard, but her focus has never been on chasing social media relevance and conversations but more maintaining the channel’s DNA. She acknowledges that SABC1 hasn’t fully capitalised on digital media, saying that is an area they’re yet to improve on. “The one thing we have always done correctly is to respect our audience, and not take them for granted at all. We strive to constantly be innovative because there are lots of stories to be told. How you tell each story makes you stand out,” she says.
The indelible mark Nzima’s made at SABC 1 is one that will definitely outlive her. She believes it’s time she passed on the baton to younger leaders. “I’m leaving the channel in good hands, with a group of people that understand both the channel and its audience. Being a part of something this big was a true honour and privilege,” she says.