Siyanda Mohutsiwa
Siyanda Mohutsiwa

Black mouths, white voices

“You can teach a dog how to walk on its hind legs and put a diamond collar around its neck, but it’s still a dog.” No such saying exists in Zulu, or any other Bantu language for that matter. And yet the writers of Intersexions expected us to believe that. This quote featured on the first episode of the show and represented the final straw for me.

This week Fiona Snyckers wrote about the similarities between white writers writing black characters and minstrel-era performers doing blackface and I was reminded about my own frustrations with the South African TV industry’s depiction of African life.

The quote I started with is one of hundreds of examples of moments in SA TV where all I could do was roll my eyes as I realised that the closest white writers could come to depicting African life was to have their white lines translated into Bantu languages, which is literally the cheapest, laziest way to write. And yet this practice has become the norm on SA TV.

At least twice a year on twitter, I bring up this topic and I get mixed responses. Most of the time my South African followers agree with me and understand the frustration this phenomenon brings out of me, but many other times there appears to be a sort of defensiveness that is a natural reaction to hearing a foreigner criticise a local enterprise. These two reactions are equally reasonable but are not of my interest in this article.

It is the third reaction that always gets me: it is an inability to believe that there is anything wrong with the fact that white writers are the head writers on many “African stories” on South African TV. The Africans that see nothing wrong with white-written-black TV are the ones who most concern me. They believe that the five African names they see in the credits at the end of a show are enough. They become upset when I point out that a show like Isibaya has a white creator, much like many of the other supposed black shows on SA TV.

Many believe that there isn’t anything wrong with a white writer writing black stories because “fiction is fiction and as long as it’s well-researched that’s fine”. Bull-[expletive]. I’m calling bull because it appears no-one else has the guts to.

This to me is yet another example of Africans having low standards for their country and no vision. Many accept that the near ownership that whites have over the SA cultural industry is not only alright but justifies whatever scraps they throw at the black community under the lowest scrutiny possible. It is repulsive to me.

When I watch black shows written by whites I actually feel nauseous. It is not enough to research lobola and other cultural practices. It is not enough to translate white story-lines into black languages and add an “eish” here and there and some neck-jerking. This is an insult to our intelligence. And yet, it’s been happening for years while black South Africans sat in their homes, hands folded and accepting that Muvhango is pretty good so we should shut up about it.

No. The African story will be wiped out in the next generation if we continue to allow the shallow depiction of African life to be the norm on television. The beauty of African languages is grossly under-represented on these shows. The quote I started with is not a Zulu idiom. I may not be a Zulu speaker but I do believe there are culturally-appropriate versions of that saying that could have better represented the beauty of the Zulu language as well as summed up the emotion the character sought to draw out of the audience.

This is the other problem with letting whites take the reins on these productions: the nuances of African languages and interactions are entirely lost on them. And the so-called “black consultants” on these shows clearly have no idea how to translate them to white writers. This is a fact.

I am not saying writers should pander to stereotypes of black life but the truth is there are a lot of realities of black life in South Africa that are missed because writers seek tried and tested “entertainment” over reality. Some people will want to point out that it’s okay for whites to write black stories because “some stories are universal human truths”. Poppycock.

In a country like SA where the whites have clearly demonstrated in so many instances that they truly have no way of comprehending the black experience we cannot afford to allow whites to be everyone’s story-tellers. It does not make sense. White life is different from black life. That’s simply what it comes down to. And SA cannot miss the opportunity to demand authenticity from its entertainment industry.

When I watch SA TV all I see is white fantasy of black life. What’s even sadder is the fact that the white-painted-black-life depicted on these shows is also black fantasy of black life. This cannot go on for much longer. So much is lost in this big charade.

I want you to play a drinking game called “Black Mouths, White Voices” when you watch “black TV”: every time an elderly woman that speaks your language says something you know none of the elderly black women you have ever met would say, take a shot. I guarantee you’ll be drunk by the third episode of the Generations omnibus.

Ultimately, TV must be thought of as a time capsule: a way in which historians will understand our cultures. That’s how we must begin to think of it. Because when we think of it like that we can ask ourselves the tough question: is my culture accurately represented? Is my experience respected for the genuine story it is?

I may not agree with everything Fiona said, but when she said “black stories are best told by black writers — this needs to be said”. I thought “lekgoa le le opile kgomo lenaka*”. In other words, I couldn’t agree more.

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