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

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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.

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