S. AFRICA MINES ITS CULTURES

Zulu, Sotho and Tswana soaps have cleaned up their U.S. rivals in the dash for audiences on South Africa’s four main television channels.

The three programs, broadcast in the vernacular in the prime 8-8:30 p.m. slots on consecutive nights of the week, have in the past two months consistently topped the ratings.

All three, featuring spicy stories of sex and sin – but underlined with strong moral themes – have left white-oriented foreign imports “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Knots Landing,” “Neighbours,” “Home and Away” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” for dead.

The three – “Hlala Kwabafileyo” (literally translated: Stay With the Dead), “Bonweenwee” (Double Cross) and “Mokgonyana Mmatswale” (Mother-in-Law, Son-in-Law) – follow the familiar soap opera formula of corruption, greed, sex, sin and complicated relationships, with lashings of witchcraft and local superstitions added to the brew.

The main difference is that those engaged in the not-so-true-to-life shenanigans are black South Africans playing mainly to black South Africa auds.

The star of “Hlala Kwabafileyo,” Daphney Hlomuka, returned from London where she acted in Antony Sher’s production of “Titus Andronicus,” to find she was the most-watched actress in South Africa.

“I think people relate to the program and to the characters,” Hlomuka said in a recent interview. “Before, at the (South African Broadcasting Corp.), the people tended to think they knew what black people wanted. Now we are getting closer to the truth of it.”

Previously, black actors played in white dramas mainly in the roles of servants. Now, the dramas are more sophisticated and the roles have been reversed, with whites taking only minor roles.

Clementine Mosimane, star of “Bonweenwee,” ascribes the success of the show to the audience’s relating to the onscreen situations. “Black viewers are far more enlightened than people think,” she says. “They are choosy and appreciate good acting. If you can get your character across, they will fall in love with you and watch the program.”

“Mokgonyana Mmatswale” scripter Colin Selahle believes the success of his show is because the strip’s characters are “mesmerizing” for local auds.

“Black viewers find the stories easier to identify with than something like ‘L.A. Law,’ ” Selahle says. “It’s an African story and it shows in the ratings.”

Although the actors and actresses in the three shows have become household names, they are not yet in the position where they can pick their roles, nor have they become wealthy, unlike the stars of U.S. productions.

“If I were in a hit show like this in America or England, I would be a millionaire instead of still struggling,” Hlomuka laments. “But we are rebuilding a country, and that is more important.”

For the week ended Aug. 13, the three South African productions each drew approximately 1.6 million viewers.

They out-performed “Murder, She Wrote,” “The News” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” each with about 1.4 million viewers, and “Dr. Quinn,” “Matlock” and “L.A. Law,” each with about 1.2 million.

The nearest competitor in the soap opera stakes was pay station M-Net’s locally made “Egoli – Place of Gold” with 10 ARs.

In the foreign stakes, “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “Baywatch” trailed with 8 ARs each, while “Moon Over Miami” only managed 5 ARs to make it into the top 50.

Because of the difficulties in gaining accurate counts of audiences in impoverished black townships and in far-flung rural areas, the audiences for the locally made soaps are estimated to be at least double those officially recorded.

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