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Black faces in high places

SOAP: Popular South African TV programme

I’M CURRENTLY visiting South Africa on a tour of duty. This has become a biannual sojourn during which I see old friends and family, and stock up on essential music and jewellery.

I also catch up on the South African soap operas I was addicted to, and watch copious amounts of music videos so I can know what the cool kids are into and have conversations with my young cousins. (They still think I’m not cool, mind you.) The differences between a country where the majority of its inhabitants are black to living in England are striking. No more so than when you look at their media.

When I was growing up in the UK, seeing a black person on TV was a thing of excitement. You were called from whichever corner of the house you were in to “come and see this!” Watching programmes like The Cosby Show, A Different World, Roots and The Real McCoy were like attending a sermon. We would all gather, young and old, and watch in awe. This was as a direct result of being starved of seeing people that looked like us on TV who were not winning a sports event.

When I was younger we used to support the US teams, as they at least looked like us. South Africa didn’t have black players, and as for England…

It has gotten a lot better, of course, but in the 1980s it was really all about black Olympic gold medal winners Daley Thompson and Tessa Sanderson. Oh, and the comedian Gary Wilmot. Whatever happened to him?


One thing I love about being in Africa is that when I watch TV, I see a lot of people who look like me. Not just my skin colour but size and shape.

In the UK, I only ever really see black people on the news, in sport and music. But in South Africa they are in all sorts of roles, from government to business and entertainment – from President Jacob Zuma down. And it reminds me that aspirations and ambition are not necessarily racially dictated.

Growing up in the UK, I remember teachers telling me that I should consider becoming an athlete. I had never won a race and was more interested in reading books. But some, not all, of my teachers clearly couldn’t visualise a profession for me. And so I had to visualise it for myself.

South Africans now have it easier. The soaps here are hysterical. They’re a hybrid of Nollywood and daytime American shows, with Africans in different industries such as advertising (Generations) or mining (Isidingo). I can imagine if I was a child growing up here, I would be inspired to be whatever I wanted to be.


The emergence of the black middle class means that there is now a type of wealth that anyone can see as reachable and aspire to. TV here demonstrates that corporate isn’t necessarily the right option for all in the new South Africa. Celebrity and entrepreneurship are fast developing as industries of their own. Apart from the Internet, I don’t feel the same for black people in the UK outside of sports, music and the occasional contestant on BBC TV show The Apprentice. And South Africans haven’t even started to absorb the Internet into their everyday home lives yet, as we have in Britain, so the sky truly is the limit.

In South Africa, there are reality shows which highlight the ease with which a little money can be life changing. Take Tropika Island of Treasure, a reality TV show where 14 celebrity contestants and consumers compete for R1M (the equivalent of £83,000). I was confused. Why would celebrities and ordinary people be battling it out for money? I managed to catch the final where the remaining four contestants were in Cancun, Mexico. Some of them had never even left the country before and were awestruck.

Then it hit me that in South Africa this is life-changing money for everybody. And everyone wants it regardless of race or celebrity.

So next time you are flicking through your Sky channels with your kids, or even when you are looking for a little inspiration of your own, don’t be afraid to try those African soaps and reality shows. They’ll crack you up.

© Chelsea Black

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