In little more than two years, South Africa’s Soweto TV has evolved into one of the continent’s foremost community television stations. Viewer numbers in South Africa alone are approaching the one million mark. Soweto TV’s attractive and vibrant anchors present a variety of programming geared specifically towards the inhabitants of South Africa’s largest township. Yet the station’s rapidly gaining a national, and even a continental, following, with many across Africa also watching it via satellite.
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From the outside, it’s little more than an abandoned, rundown school. Dust and broken concrete litter the premises. Stray dogs steal rubbish from overflowing bins in the bordering street. Bedraggled school children buy soft drinks from a vendor in a nearby alley.
But this building in Soweto is far from a depressing place. It’s near a house that once sheltered a young Nelson Mandela from the apartheid police. These days it’s a place of activity and excitement. Staff members hustle from one task to the next; guests sit in anticipation in makeshift waiting rooms; cameras turn to focus on subjects; laughter and shouting permeate the halls.
Poor in resources it may be, but industry insiders have described Soweto TV as one of the most exciting additions ever to Africa’s largest and most lucrative media sector.
‘Real TV for Real People’
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In the distance, the behemoth that is the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) looms over Johannesburg, sunlight gleaming from its massive glass and metal façade, luxury vehicles shining in its many parking lots.
“I sometimes get sad, because most of my staff can’t even afford the most basic of vehicles,” says Tshepo Thafeng, Soweto TV’s managing director. “They don’t earn much at all. They do what they do for the love of television.”
So far, love is taking the station a “long way,” according to Elize Viljoen, a veteran producer of quality South African TV programming, and one of the primary figures behind Soweto TV’s success.
“Here, we emphasize hard work and creativity, not fancy airs and graces,” Viljoen says. Her comments are in line with the philosophy underpinning Soweto TV. The studios and control rooms were once classrooms. Tense technicians now hunch over TV monitors and sound mixing desks. And slogans like “Real Television for Real People” are painted boldly across dark walls.
About two years ago, South African authorities granted Soweto TV a broadcasting license. Since then, says Viljoen, the station’s been engaged in a “beautiful struggle” to make “top notch” programming to attract viewers. Now, its diverse menu – from cookery programs to youth debates to news and entertainment – has fans in “all walks of life,” says Thafeng.
More whites are watching
Program Content Manager Hermina Matlong says her main task is to make TV for “ordinary” black Sowetans, whether they’re “filing documents in an office or slaving down a mine.”
One of her favorite programs is Ziyamporama, a show that covers everything that’s “hip and happening” in Soweto, from concerts to club openings to fashion shows.
“People in Soweto love partying, so we also cover a lot of parties. There are artists from Soweto exhibiting in Europe, and when they come to South Africa, we speak with them and show their art,” Matlong says.
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Part of her job is to “break the lie” that Soweto is just a place of mass poverty. “Many residents here are rich, at the top scale of society. They have beautiful houses here…and we show some of that because no one else does,” Matlong says.
Yet, despite her station’s focus on Soweto, she says increasing numbers of white South Africans are embracing what was hitherto regarded as a “totally black” station.
“Lots of white people give us feedback. They even send us messages in Afrikaans! They’re watching us. South Africa is changing; cultures are moving closer together.”
Soweto TV is also not averse to butting heads with the local establishment. It has, for example, offended staunch traditionalists who hold that homosexuality is “un-African” by broadcasting inserts condemning the “hate” killings of gay people in South Africa.
Soweto TV vs SABC
Soweto TV’s ascension is happening even as the state broadcaster is experiencing a swift decline. SABC ratings are down. SABC viewers complain about what they see as poor quality programming. South African newspapers are regularly filled with stories of corruption and mismanagement of budgets amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars at the corporation.
The SABC is the subject of regular parliamentary investigatory hearings in South Africa, where the corporation’s woes are examined.
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SABC spokespeople acknowledge that the corporation is deep in debt, and is facing its greatest crises ever experienced in post-apartheid South Africa.
Thafeng says, “Political interference and bureaucracy” are “murdering” the SABC.
“You can have the greatest idea on earth. But because of bureaucracy, by the time you execute that, someone, somewhere – like us – will have already executed that,” he says.
While insisting that his tiny non-profit community station is not in direct competition with the public broadcaster, Thafeng also acknowledges, “We need to register numbers of viewers in order to keep getting funded. And where do we get those numbers from? From other stations, like the SABC.”
He says Soweto TV “hurts” the SABC when it comes to the “fight for the cake” that is advertising revenue.
“Let’s say product X was going to spend one million (rand) at the SABC. Because of us, product X now only spends 850,000 (rand) at the SABC. The rest comes to us.”
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Thafeng’s convinced that the state broadcaster is no longer training its employees to the highest standards, but rather concentrates on poaching “high caliber” staff from smaller stations such as Soweto TV. He says none of his staffers in the past have said no to the far higher salaries on offer at the SABC, despite the corporation’s poor reputation.
The SABC denies it’s no longer intensively training its employees, but also says it is accepted business practice to seek to employ the best possible staff – a fact Thafeng readily acknowledges.
‘You just feel so warm….’
One of Thafeng’s “high caliber” crew members is Jonathan Ramotsei, a young man with no formal television training who’s nevertheless become a respected journalist and presenter.
Two years ago, following completion of a diploma in business administration but unable to find a job, Ramotsei took a chance and applied for a post at Soweto TV.
“I had love for politics and the media since I was in high school,” he says. “I went to Soweto TV and they asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I wanted to do news. (They asked me) ‘Do you have any news background?’ I said, ‘No, I have never worked in my life before….’”
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Despite his lack of training, Ramotsei’s passion, eloquence and knowledge of politics impressed, and he got the job. He explains, “Our current affairs focuses mainly on the service delivery issues in Soweto – is the government giving people what they want, are the institutions serving the people the way they have to? Our business coverage has two goals. We firstly need to promote local business around Soweto, and secondly we need to educate budding businesspeople.”
Ramotsei says the most rewarding aspect of his work is “seeing the joy on someone’s face, after you’ve helped them get customers and their business is no longer failing. You just feel so warm.”
He’s “deeply grateful” to Soweto TV for “gambling” on him.
“If I were to die today, I will die having achieved my dream. At least I’ll know that I’ve been in media, I’ve worked for media – even though it’s not a big media institution,” Ramotsei says.
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The presenter’s become a celebrity in Soweto. “People in the streets, you can see them talking about you. Old grannies hang over fences to see you. They just want to know, ‘Is this the guy whom I saw on television the other day?’”
But it’s not only the “old grannies” paying attention to Ramotsei…. His colleagues say he’s become somewhat of a “sex symbol” in Soweto….
“I’m not aware of that!” he laughs, before adding, “(But) if that is happening, then at least I have got another addition to my character!”
Then, he turns serious again, saying, “I’m Jonathan Ramotsei. I might not have money, beautiful women and cars and big houses like other TV presenters at the big stations. But I have my good character. People can judge me on that.”
Ramotsei is indeed the personification of Soweto TV – humble, hardworking and unassuming, untainted by the gloss that characterizes modern media…. Yet also brave and bold, unafraid to take chances, and daring to dream.