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Unholy war or chosen by God?

Aspects of the Shakespearean drama Umkhokha are reminiscent of but not based on reality. Its brilliance is in centering women who are vying for power they don't qualify for
Thu, Oct 07, 2021

Before a single word of dialogue is uttered on Umkhokha, Mbuso Khoza leads a congregation in song from picturesque hill surrounds on sacred land. The song is beautiful, the men regal in green Zionist garb and umqhele on their full heads of hair and connecting beards. Dignified.

However, there is a separation. The women are on the opposite side, dressed in maroon attire with their heads covered in the Muslim style for some, and the Catholic way of nuns for the others. They are backing Khoza and the men in song.

Diligent writing on the part of head writer, Chris Q. Radebe for setting the parallels by showing and not telling in the early passages of the drama. The men are almost one-dimensional and uniform, while the women are varied in looks, age and skin tones.

The production also had to deal with the requirements of a pilot (the first episode of a series, soapie or telenovela). Firstly, you have to grab a new audience with a fetching opening scene that will rouse their interest and encourage them to keep watching.

Secondly, you have to conclude the episode with a final scene that will leave this new audience on a cliffhanger or dramatic ending that will make watching the second episode irresistible. What happens in the middle is backstory and establishing the characters and world of the story.

Umkhokha ticked all the boxes splendidly this past Sunday.

When a church leader dies unexpectedly, a prosperous church is steeped into a succession battle regarding the rightful heir to the pulpit. The leader's son is disinterested in the position, while the other is incarcerated. His wife cannot ascend the throne because she is a woman, leaving room for a church elder to assume the position at the behest of his wife.

Power dynamics of a Shakespearean scale ensue, as the women set in motion machinations to steer the church into their preferred direction without necessarily controlling the levers of power. They emerge as central figures, in contrast to the dutiful backing singers from the opening scene.

MaMzobe (Deli Malinga) is quickly established as the villain who doesn't easily suffer fools and runs her household and family with a firm hand. She is always three moves ahead and only shows a soft touch to her husband (Sibonile Ngubane), who is integral to her ambitions.

Ngubane displays a method performance as Difa, the church elder who must wake up from the eggs and claim his "rightful" place in the church. Viewers may know Ngubane as the nefarious scoundrel chief on Isibaya, but in this role, he is unrecognisable and commands dignity and pride.

MaNzimande (Sthandiwe Kgoroge) on the other end is also trying to secure the bag for her family, but her sons are disinterested. Unlike MaMzobe she seems to be approaching the succession matter with a greater degree of justice rather than malice. But it is clear that she is not one to be trifled with and will lead her family and church, despite what custom dictates.

While it is early days, and the major drama of the series is yet to unfold, it is clear that MaMzobe and MaNzimande are set for a collision course for the ages. The series, in a multitude of ways, represents the plethora of succession battles in South African churches but with the caveat of women leading the fray.

K'sazoba lit because the show promises to be a composite of the very public succession woes of several of South Africa's churches. The country provides material aplenty for Umkhokha's writers who have the added impetus of dramatic license. Amen!

  • Umkhokha is on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161), Sundays at 8pm. The first episode is available on DStv Catch Up.