City Press 30: Bring me the telly, I want to smash it to pieces

2012-03-02 12:53

To celebrate thirty years of City Press, we feature gems from our archive.

The gory murder inside a prison cell was enough for my wife. She cursed loudly and left the room. Playing the macho man, I resisted the temptation to follow suit.

After all, I’ve seen violent movies ranging from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. As a journalist who covered the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal, I have had my fair share of seeing corpses so what was a mere SABC drama?

As if the gory murder was not enough, we were shown a rape scene of a male prisoner being raped by a gang boss. And then there was another sex scene between a teenager and a woman. And then a character called Hazel slashed her wrists – we were not spared the detail in an attempt at suicide. All of this in one episode.

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. This was Yizo Yizo, the drama series flighted every Wednesday on SABC 1.

The mature part of me is happy I saw the episode. The SABC took a brave step of confronting us with the realities of our country. Violence is prevalent, and so is crime. To bury our heads in the sand is not going to make these problems disappear. This ostrich tactic failed during the Holocaust and during the apartheid years.

It was only through confronting the evils that they were made to disappear.

However, one part of me is angry with the SABC. You see, the rationale behind Yizo Yizo is to educate our youth around issues relating to crime and punishment.

The youth must be shown in visual terms why hijacking cars is bad; they must stop their hero-worshipping of criminals. Because of the socio-political realities of this country, the people most susceptible to crime are black youths; they want the fancy clothes they see worn by gangsters; they want the quick bucks the girlfriends of gangsters brandish all over the place.

Therefore the antidote to the culture of drooling over the ill-begotten riches of the gangsters is television that challenges these stereotypes, that uses black youth as actors and black schools as the setting for the drama, according to the producer of the series, Tebogo Mahlatsi.

No harm done in the SABC fulfilling its public broadcaster mandate of educating. To see entertaining, challenging television also encourages us to pay our licences.

But was that episode the epitome of good television? If it was, then I am going to smash my television into smithereens. There are better cultural and entertainment avenues available. My bookshelf is groaning under the weight of books that need to be read.

Confronting the public with unadorned, pornographic violence is an indication of the shallowness of the writer’s imagination. You can entertain and teach us without resorting to cheap tactics such as reproducing violence as we know it, violence we are trying to remove from the psyche of the nation.

The department of education, which co-sponsors Yizo Yizo, should have had the foresight to see the producers were overstepping the boundaries of responsible, tasteful viewing. Did Kader Asmal or his director-general see the episode before it was broadcast?

Far be it from me to suggest censorship. Far be it from me to attack the messenger, in this case the producers of the show. It is true they are merely conveying a message that cannot be wished away: violence is rampant in South Africa and it has to be dealt with.

However, my contention is that the best art with a message that stays with you for a long time is achieved through subtlety, through innuendo, through understatement.

Walter Mosley, Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block are three of the best crime writers living today, and the moral arguments, delivered through their well crafted yarns, are hard-hitting.

While these writers are more hard-core than, say Agatha Christie, or PD James, their books do not necessarily drip with blood. The books acknowledge the existence of violence, but it is understated, told through flashes that shimmer with artistic brilliance.

Too much violence can defeat the purpose of Yizo Yizo. Orgiastic violence can desensitise our youth to rape and other anti-social indulgences. There is a danger that instead of fearing violence, they will see it as a commonplace necessity of life just like breathing.

– City Press, 18 March 2001

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