Mzansi TVby Sihle Mthembu / 13.07.2011
Mzansi television aint that great. Local TV is an industry in limbo. A business desperately in need of redefinition. There was a time not so long ago when anything seemed possible. I remember a night when my mother and I were sitting in stygian darkness, trying to save electricity, as is common in many township homes. All we had was the glow from our small black and white set. The kind that needs a few klaps before it works.
Onscreen, in jumpy shades of black and white, a boy was getting his ass whupped. Getting beat wasn’t foreign to me. I could relate. It was riveting. The show was Yizo Yizo. The beaten school boy, Javas, played by Meshack Mavuso, has since graduated to Vusi Moletsane on Isidingo. His journey from naughty kid to mainstream success mirrors our own democracy.
Let’s consider how a little series set in a school in Gauteng changed the terms of public debate in a country still waking up to being a non racial democracy.
The first season of Yizo Yizo aired in 1999 amidst real social tension. Electioneering and rumors of a Y2K bug in the air. But even a few episodes in, it was clear the series could do something no other series has done since: it would get South Africans (particularly the township masses) talking about life in an unequal society that was changing fast.
The concept was a South African series the majority could identify with. Overlapping storylines ranged from rape and crime to authoritarian schools and family conflict. The show anticipates the market uncovered by the tabloids. As Brandon Edmonds put it, the rising middle of the country. Black families’ expanding income and choices along with chronic social problems. South African audiences had been bamboozled with images of the well off on soapies and sitcoms. Real local life, its dusty look and feel, its livewire tensions, hadn’t happened onscreen. New angry consumer youth disappointed by the limits and lies of a democracy won in the supposedly glorious Struggle had never been shown before. Bomb Productions, behind the show, was airing out our dirty laundry and we loved it. But Yizo Yizo was more than a worthy sociology of emerging black cultural change in post-apartheid South Africa, it was thrilling at times, gripping, aesthetic, sharp, and very well made.
Even more impressive, the show didn’t stop at portraying those realities, it actually dared, and this is all too rare on television, to explain them. It joined the dots between action and reaction. Tracing all the links that end with a mother finding the rotting corpse of a 17 year old drug addicted teen in her back room. A Kaizer Chiefs poster on the wall. Yizo Yizo itself was far from hopeful as a set of stories but its honesty and its integrity gave people hope. It assured us of our intelligence, of the validity of our experiences, of the shared nature of our triumphs and our problems.
The shrewd dialogue of Angus Gibson (and later Mthuthuzeli Matshoba) was always on point. Witty, idiomatic and suggestive. The drifting, soaring camera work and intense direction by Barry Berk made it feel like you were having an out of body experience. The soundtrack blasted by young pantsula’s was slamming. The pulse of the gumba gumba would take over elokshin. Kylex was in season. Hell, one of the last things Brenda Fassie did was record the title song for the soundtrack.
Thanks to the show, I recall bunking school just to catch a re-run of a missed episode. It has since become a case study for school text books, of course, and enjoyed rave reviews in The New York Times. 7de Laan hasn’t! The show even won awards in Venice and was nominated for several Emmys. But Yizo Yizo “jumped the shark” as so many successful shows do by trying to top itself. Pushing its own boundaries to breaking point.
I remember a particularly controversial sex scene. The masses, who tend to be socially and morally far removed from the progressive rhetoric of our vaunted Constitution, were outraged. Conservative church goers closed ranks. Producers and ad-spending brands were having none of it.
The SABC was scrambling to put out fires and keep the show rolling. The national broadcaster finally had something they haven’t had since: a runaway critically-acclaimed popular hit. Yizo Yizo smashed local ratings records. Inevitably there was a flurry of local dramas trying to tweak taboo themes enabled by the success of Yizo Yizo. Suddenly sex, drugs and crime was all over the box. It was our Tarantino moment. Gaz’Lam and Tsha Tsha hit the Nation. Much of the content was second-rate. Like shopping in a cheap Chinese Emporium. You knew the game was up when shows started recycling songs from Yizo Yizo. From such great heights…
The imitative glut meant Yizo Yizo never really recovered and by the time the last season aired, former die hard fans like me barely bothered to catch a single episode. The show was James Dean, potential never fully realised.
These days, there isn’t much about the series even on the web. Critics barely mention it. Maybe it was too far ahead of its time? Maybe we’re still catching up? But back then, for a time, the show meant everything. Yizo Yizo was our Roots. It’s a cultural resource, a challenge to future creatives, and it’ll never go out of style.