Nearly two weeks before Chris Rock took Hollywood to task over the film industry’s lack of diversity at the 88th Academy Awards, South African TV writer Phathu Makwarela issued his own impassioned tweet de coeur.
Hoping to call attention to what he saw as a shortage of black-produced shows nominated for the South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTAs) — including the popular drama “Skeem Saam,” for which he writes — Makwarela tried to jumpstart a social-media campaign around the hashtags #SAFTAsSoWhite and #BoycottSAFTAs10.
Despite his efforts, the protest quickly fizzled out. But while it failed to stir an online storm, Makwarela’s criticism echoed what many others agree is an ongoing challenge not only for the SAFTAs — which take place on March 18 and 20 — but for the South African TV industry as a whole.
“Diversity has always been a big issue, and it will always be because of the history of the country,” says Rolie Nikiwe, creative director of BrandedSoul Prods., which has a series (“Matatiele,” pictured) in the running for best drama this year.
As they celebrate their 10th anniversary, the SAFTAs might not seem like an obvious lightning rod for criticism. Look through this year’s list of acting nominees, which include the respected stage veteran Bheki Mkhwane, and the actress Vatiswa Ndara, who once performed the iconic role of Winnie Mandela, and the awards would seem to accurately reflect the country’s demographics.
“At face value, it doesn’t really look like there’s a problem,” says Nikiwe. In South Africa, he notes, while drawing a comparison to the issue of diversity in Hollywood, “the face of the industry is black.”
But once you dig below the surface of black actors, writers and directors in the South African TV biz, Nikiwe and others argue, you’ll find an industry still disproportionately in the hands of white ownership.
While no research has specifically addressed ownership in the film and TV industries, a Dept. of Trade and Industry (DTI) survey last year found that just 3% of the South African economy is black-owned, despite blacks making up roughly 80% of the population. It’s a problem that cuts across all sectors of society, where transformation has been slow to come by more than two decades after the end of apartheid paved the way for the historic election of the country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela.
Discontent has been growing, and South Africa has faced an unprecedented moral reckoning in the past year. Triggered by a wave of student protests that have often mirrored — and been inspired by — the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., the country is in the midst of a roiling debate over race and privilege that has put to the test the enduring myth of a “Rainbow Nation.”
Government efforts to address economic transformation have met with mixed results. In 2003, the DTI developed a strategy for Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), the official policy that has for the past two decades sought to redress the systemic inequalities created under apartheid. Many credit it with helping to create a large black middle class, particularly in Johannesburg, the capital of the country’s TV biz.
But a 2010 study by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) called efforts to achieve BBBEE compliance in the film and TV industries “problematic,” with many smaller production companies able to skirt around government-mandated employment quotas by claiming to fall beneath the R5 million (around $325,000) earnings threshold.
Still, in spite of the flaws in implementing BBBEE, says Harriet Gavshon, managing director at Quizzical Pictures, “I think we would be in a much worse state without it.
“There have been huge changes in the industry,” says Gavshon, whose company has two series in the running at this year’s SAFTAs (“Rhythm City,” “Umlilo”). Along with black-owned production companies like it, Quizzical proudly features its BBBEE-compliance on its website.
“But this doesn’t mean it’s enough or anywhere near where it should be,” she adds.
Nikiwe agrees that the industry has come a long way in the past two decades. Anecdotally, he notes, black-owned companies like BrandedSoul have become increasingly commonplace. Just as black actors and technicians broke into the industry in the early-1990s, followed by a wave of black directors a decade ago, a generation of black producers are reimagining what’s possible for young, black South Africans.
“It’s a privilege, but it’s also a very important responsibility to make sure that … when we’re handing over the baton, we’re handing over a better industry,” he says.