The function of Edutainment: Using Skeem Saam to read the role of community television

Played by Vusi Leremi on Skeem Saam, Clement's character is used to examine how homophobia unfolds in the home. (Courtesy of Skeem Saam)
Played by Vusi Leremi on Skeem Saam, Clement's character is used to examine how homophobia unfolds in the home. (Courtesy of Skeem Saam)
  • Edutainment refers to the use of mediums meant for entertainment as a tool for social action and behavioural change.
  • Alongside democracy, South Africa’s national public broadcaster began the work of using its television channels to discuss a number of social issues.
  • With the practice still on going, Arts24 examines that ways in which this means of informing communities has served the country through a look at Soul City and Skeem Saam

Soul City, 1999

Although vague, my first encounter with the intricacies of gender based violence happened while watching Soul City

Aired in 1999 over a period of 13 weeks, the fourth season of Soul City followed the Seriti couple: Matlakala and her husband Thabang. Matlakala is a clerk at the community clinic and Thabang is a teacher. They have three children together. Both of them are role models in the community. 

However as the plot unfolded, South African audiences watched as Thabang grew increasingly violent, both emotionally and physically, towards his wife Matlakala. 

Through this plot, viewers witnessed the entitlement over women as the abuser went about condoning his use violence, saying it was a necessary means to maintaining control of the household. In a scene followed by their son seeing him strike Matlakala, Thabang goes as far as to tell his son, “One day you’ll understand. When you’re a man in your own house you have to be the captain of the ship or it will sink.”  

In addition to the perpetrators act of justifying and denying violence, the show’s writers highlight other themes prevalent in upholding GBV including community complacency, victim blaming and the lack of resources protecting women and children once GBV is reported. 

Patrick Shai, who portrayed the character Thabang in Soul City's GBV narrative, later went on to participate in a Brothers For Life campaign. Through an advertisement placed on local prime television and radio, Shai gave detailed accounts of assaulting his wife. In interviews about her experience with GBV, his wife speaks of the incidents taking place before he took the role of Thabang on Soul City.   

By the end of the season, Soul City pacifies audiences with an idealistic conclusion where the community comes to Matlakala’s aid and her husband receives a substantial sentence. While stories following this plotline are not a rarity, the season played a fundamental role in outlining some of the ways that GBV can unfold while introducing viewers to the resources available to protect the women and children. 

Skeem Saam, 2020

The first time my parents encountered the absurdity of homophobia happened while watching Skeem Saam in June. 

Centred around the lives of a group of friends living in Turfloop, Skeem Saam is a coming-of-age series that uses a number of adversaries to address social issues prevalent in the country. After making its debut in 2011, the show continues to build on the techniques used by the writers behind edutainment shows like Soul City, Soul Buddyz, Hopeville and Gazlam

During Pride month, the series introduced a new narrative to the show’s plot. During a disciplinary hearing at school, a teenage character by the name of Clement is cornered into informing his peers, guardians and principal that he is gay. 

Clement is not the first character on prime South African television to be portrayed as queer. He follows Thiza and Thabang from Yizo Yizo, Jason and Senzo from Generations, Schumacher and Kgosi Kgosietsile from The Queen and Andile Dikana from The River. While the inclusion of a queer character is nothing new, the nuanced writing used to develop the Clement character sets it apart from its predecessors. 

Although the plot is only being aired in 2020, the show’s writers began developing the queer narrative in 2017 when Vusi Leremi first appeared on the show. Leremi says it was in a bid to ensure that the character wasn’t laced in tropes that would distract audiences from the plot’s messaging. 

As is detailed in Disclosure, a 2020 Netflix documentary about Hollywood’s transphobic legacy when portraying trans people, the past has seen tropes (whether flamboyance or hypersexuality) being used to sideline or invalidate people on the queer spectrum. Flamboyant characters like The Queen’s Kgosi Kgosietsile are laughed at while hypersexual bisexual partner Schumacher is condemned. 

Before the script delves into the romantic aspect of Clement’s sexuality, Skeem Saam takes viewers into Clement’s home and school life. Prior to coming out, Clement was moderately well-behaved and had good grades, giving his guardians little to no trouble. However we watch as the spaces that he usually occupies without being noticed quickly become absurdly hostile. The events range from his grandmother minimising Clement running away to drama being a gay trait all the way to his mother receiving advice to exorcise the queerness out of him. 

And while the decision to slowly unearth his sexuality kept the narrative from the common portrayal of gay men, it also worked to highlight the safety in invisibility for queer young people who are still in the financial care of their guardians.   

Audiences have become attached to the character and grown fond of him in the last three years. By subjecting someone the audience knows deeply to such treatment, the writing demonstrates how unreasonable queerphobia is. 

While edutainment is doing the work of getting better at introducing its audiences to the fundamentals that social justice works towards, it is too much to expect them to change people’s minds if the plots appear sporadically. So saturation is necessary. Topics that make audiences uncomfortable like queer ways of being, GBV and sexwork being real work should not be topical only when a period on the calendar calls for it. Instead, they belong in conservative sitting rooms, every night, during family time.  
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