The figures are starting to come in on the other side of the SABC’s 90% local drive: the TV re-programming instituted in July. ( http://www.channel24.co.za/TV/News/sabc3s-new-local-content-a-tv-ratings-flop-20160817 ) As predicted, SABC3 is leaking viewers like a broken kasi water main, which does not bode well for relationships with advertisers.
I’ve written in past columns about the problems with the implementation of the SABC music quotas, and in particular about the arbitrary decision-making and percentage chosen, and the absence of a long-term business strategy. Without attention to these, there won’t be any revenue for local musicians to claim.
Let’s turn now to a bigger question that covers music and other types of broadcast programming: what do we mean by ‘local’ – and is it automatically lekker simply by virtue of its local-ness?
Music from the rest of Africa has almost disappeared from the SABC airwaves, so ‘local’ in this context is clearly defined as narrowly national. But how South African? A local artist recording with an American, such as Louise Carver and DJ Joe Bermudez? It may have reached the heights of the Billboard charts, but use that yardstick and it’s only 50% local…Some of Louis Moholo’s most astounding recordings were duos in collaboration with Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer. Sorry, only 50% again…Almost Ndikho Xaba’s entire exile output was made with a band of American collaborators, The Natives. Sorry, only 17%. Which simply proves how meaningless percentages are.
Let’s be charitable, though, and assume there is more than kneejerk narrow nationalism (or a need for budget savings on foreign-currency purchases) behind the quota rulings. Let’s assume there is a genuine desire to see the heights SA cultural products can reach showcased on the airwaves, or the
values our society ought to cherish conveyed. After all, Days of Our Lives with its deceit, sexism and rampant capitalist greed, hardly provided role models for the youth…So what do we get instead? In terms of music, predominantly old music from an exceedingly narrow playlist, repeated far too often; in terms of features, inane chatter, the fetishization of consumption, and exercises in thinly disguised product placement (or ‘aspirational lifestyle’, as SABC’s Kaiser Kganyago called it); and in terms of drama, South African soapies dominated by deceit, sexism and rampant capitalist greed.
(I know, that’s the nature of soapies. But is it really the only mirror we want to hold up to ourselves?)
There are exceptions, some of them surprising – Afternoon Express, for example, albeit riddled with product placement slots, is one of the few places where you might, on a Friday afternoon, catch an all too brief but reasonably smart conversation with a local musician, outside the world of pop trivia, who is actually happening now. (I’ve seen both Claude Cozens and Dyer père et fils there.) There are decent documentaries in the SABC archives, too, although they pall when repeated too often.
Other items are exceptions because they are even worse than the above. SABC still occasionally shows recycled apartheid-era
dramas, for example, where rebellious youths asking awkward political questions and ‘making trouble’ are the villains. Then there are the South African remakes of banal overseas concepts, such as the unspeakable Divas of Jozi – Real Housewives…but with the boring bits left in. None of that is lekker just because it’s local.
There is no doubt that increased local content quotas could be good for our creative industries: that’s never been the argument. There’s equally absolutely no doubt we are –right now – producing the international-level quality required: Kesivan and The Lights have already played Carnegie Hall; there’s Louise and her Billboard number one; Wouter Kellermann or LBM and their Grammies; Rehad Desai’s Emmy-winning doccie Miners Shot Down (which, curiously, we still haven’t seen on SABC).
Putting quality like that in place, on airwaves whose revenue will be able to support it, demands a long-term business strategy and investment. It also needs an understanding that the mandate of a public broadcaster (rather than the state broadcaster the SABC appears to think it is) is ‘to entertain, inform and educate’. Those last two entail opening the minds of viewers and listeners: certainly, to the great cultural products that were and are being created here – but also to what’s going on in the rest of the continent and the world. Jazz is a world music, and some of its genre-defining tracks, from yesterday and today, will always be 100% foreign, but still need to be heard. (By the SABC’s definition, Duke Ellington is definitely 100% foreign. Abdullah Ibrahim, by contrast, calls him “the elder of my village”.) Hip-hop, Rn’B and even deejaying are equally world musics now, to which we have given our own unique vision. Offering context for what we’re creating here is part of what an intelligent broadcaster needs to do to nurture intelligent audiences, as part of its public service. And that mission is necessary for music as much as for drama, features and news.
Cultural cross-fertilisation is vital too. In the past few weeks, I’ve received three unarguably South African (and very different) jazz albums all so knockout gorgeous that I’m still hunting adequate words to write about them: McCoy Mrubata’s Live @The Bird’s Eye (92.3% Swiss playing; 100% South African compositions); Shane Cooper’s Skyjack (40% Swiss); and Shabaka Hutchings’ The Wisdom of Elders (12.5% British). Nationality is just a piece of paper. Next week, this page will get back to talking about the music…
But before that, come to the Orbit on Sunday August 28 at 6pm. (http://www.theorbit.co.za. ) We’ll be discussing this quota thang for an hour or so, with guests including Don Laka, Brenda Sisane, Dave Alexander from Sheer Publishing Africa, Prof Salim Washington, hopefully a representative from ICASA too, and Percy Mabandu chairing. The debate will be followed by another hour or so of music from Sisonke Xonti and Iyonde. It should be a lively conversation, and it’ll be even better with your voice and ideas as part of it.