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How Isibaya transformed TV & forced other productions to level up

The telenovela paved the way for productions like The Queen and The River in creating fierce female leads, as well as portraying diverse black experiences in Mzansi
Thu, Apr 01, 2021

As the curtain closes on those women and men of great repute from eBhubesini, we thought it prudent to look back at how Isibaya changed the trajectory of popular entertainment… or Mzansi Magic at large. The production of Isibaya beget the coming of The Queen, which unearthed the vast resources on The River.

These are powerful mainstays with female leads that have seen to it that women helm the leads of ratings-rich TV. Isibaya was also a great starting point on how the narrative structure of the telenovela found success (with iNkaba preceding it for a season) and compelled viewers to reimagine dramatic entertainment anew.

Is'thunzi, the drama series, shone the light on Thuso Mbedu, who is set to be the lead in a Barry Jenkins television series in the US, led a cast of four young women growing up in rural KwaZulu-Natal. That show was equally bold in character validity and story, and also featured Isibaya's Sdumo Mtshali.

These shows have not only mobilised characterisation to disrupt normative representations of blackness, but they also developed a black aesthetic that reflects the multiplicity of the black experience in Mzansi.

Furthermore, the masculinity that is often predominant in the drama genre was destabilised through women-centred narratives that depict women with a new lens as portrayed with the characters of Mkabayi, Iris and Phumelele on Isibaya.

Phumelele's character evolved from that of an obedient wife in a polygamous marriage, to a divorcee who took on the patriarchy head-on. Harriet in The Queen remains a myriad of all things graceful and badass, and her former arch enemy Gracious Mabuza was an assassin with a flair for the comedic.

It was 2013 when Isibaya set forth in motion a cannonball that forced stations that produce drama to relook their commissioning criterion. Some produced copycat shows, while others took the lesson and pushed the envelope in terms of creativity.

The Zungus and Ndlovus lit our screens with a well-manicured dramatic installation that engrossed viewers within a world that was myth, yet plausible – traditional, yet contemporary.

The producers surveyed the landscape and gave the story a treatment that was devoid of the mushy melodrama peddled by South African soapies. The story arcs were not drawn out and did not toy with viewers' emotions in a ploy to keep them engaged.

On occasions where they were indulgent, like with the medicine man Nkabinde and Gatsheni's Mgijimi, they tapped into our intrinsic characteristic of laughing through the pain. It was sad that the lead was now a zombie, but it was funny in the same vein.

This storyline leapt out of our screens and onto the soccer field with the late Orlando Pirates fan, Mandla Sindane, who called himself 'mgijimi', in an attempt to imbue the Buccaneers with the supernatural on the soccer field.

Additionally, Isibaya's lens didn't gloss over the details.

Martin Scorsese once said, "cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out", and the good folks at Bomb Productions took heed of this with images that made you feel the unhurried terrain of rural life, the formalities of linguistic exchanges, and the heat that pores through long days of nothingness.

Stars were born through this production and subsequent ones, and the material conditions of cast and crew were changed forever.

"It would not be wrong to suggest that Isibaya changed the direction of South African television, now would it?" says Pallance Dladla, who played Jabulani Zungu on the show.

"There was a certain quality to it that was rare, and great pride and knowledge in the language that we used. It was authentic and it was real – it was only natural that people gravitated towards it in the manner that they did."

  • Catch the final episode of Isibaya on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) on 2 April at 8.30pm. Previous seasons and episodes are available to stream on Showmax