OP-ED | Culture and heritage: An ever-evolving reality series

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Seputla Sebogodi in Redemption.
Seputla Sebogodi in Redemption.
Photo: BET Africa

A glorious past is nothing without an exciting future – and the key to that African future, I believe, was and is storytelling, writes Monde Twala.

Heritage celebrations and cultural milestones may come and go. Still, it is worth remembering the important significance of what present-day culture tells us about who we are while giving us a glimpse of who we can become.

Post these celebrations each year, most of us probably give even less thought to the various elements therein, those we have harnessed of our different cultures – from our clothing to our music and food – all are intrinsic to our heritage. 

These, as well as our language, our folktales, our rituals, our values and belief systems, are part and parcel of who we are; and, as such, hold a mirror to our past. But, at the same time, they reflect who we are right now and give hints as to who we are becoming.

That is what makes South Africa – and, indeed, the entire African continent – so exciting right now. We have a heritage and history that is incredibly rich and diverse; we are, after all, the birthplace of humankind. From the first discovery of an adult fossil, Mrs Ples, in Sterkfontein, to Miriam Makeba as the first female South African in history to win a Grammy, to now – you cannot write history without writing about Africa's role in shaping it.

But a glorious past is nothing without an exciting future – and the key to that African future, I believe, was and is storytelling.

That is because storytelling allows us to explore where we come from, giving insights into the lives that have gone before us. And, in so doing, it makes it possible to explore new identities and shape innovation. By telling stories about our legacy, we lay the foundations for a new path ahead. By celebrating the African renaissance, we salute the possibilities that are birthed every day on this new continent.

This is precisely why the platforms that provide a space for that storytelling are so important. True, television is about entertainment and even information. And it is very much about the 'now' – the stories that fascinate us today, the people who intrigue us, the idols of pop culture whose actions, style and even beliefs are slowly becoming woven into our every day – leaving a stamp on who we are and, ultimately, becoming part of our heritage.

At Paramount Africa, our programming is a way for us to acknowledge and preserve local pop culture. This is becoming more obvious as local content is inspired by the global currency we carry to give way to our diversity, our concerns, and our interests. We look to the stories of the past to learn about the greatness we have achieved and draw inspiration to reimagine our future.

While we sing and dance to the music of our African stars, as highlighted on MTV Africa and BET Africa, we are paying homage to the African renaissance and the footprints it continues to leave, visible still in our art, our music, our fashion – all of which are now being imitated and celebrated throughout the world. The echoes of this milestone live on in the creations of designers like Shade Thomas-Fahm and Chris Seydou.

At the same time, the beauty and intricacies of African textiles fire the imaginations of fashion lovers. This creative storytelling journey recently came under the spotlight at the exhibition of African fashion hosted at the V&A in London, which examined the impact of this unique aesthetic on the globe. In the same way, those beats and rhythms that are household sounds in our own continent are replaying in melodies the world over. The likes of Burna Boy, Wizkid, Ayra Star, Major League DJz, Diamond Platnumz and many others are all shining examples of a new global African wave and the amplification of Pan-Africanism through arts and culture.

'We hear the tongue of our home with our hearts and ears'

Of course, language is an inescapable part of culture. Our experiences – from the mundane to the sublime – are shaped by the words we use. To use a different phrase to describe your circumstances and your reality may feel somewhat different. Our choice of words tells people something about who we are. That is why we hear the tongue of our home with our hearts and ears: it speaks to us on a level that other languages simply cannot reach. By telling our stories in our own languages, we make them more relatable – but perhaps even more than this, in a highly globalised world, we ringfence our own culture and, subsequently, our own languages.

The United Nations said, in 2018, that conservative estimates suggest that by the year 2100, more than half of the world's languages will be extinct. Less conservative estimates suggest that by the end of this century, more than 90% of all languages will be lost forever. These sobering numbers highlight the importance of promoting and preserving our local languages, that they may live on for centuries to come, and that our culture may continue to live through the primary tool for expression and communication. This was the inspiration behind dubbing the iconic animated series SpongeBob SquarePants in isiZulu.

Representation is something intrinsically important for and valued by the child watching their favourite animated series on Nickelodeon. The classic animated comedy television series has contributed 14.5% of ratings to total performance for the year to date on the channel – cementing it as one of the highest ratings for the channel. The show also received an impressive 1 billion YouTube video views for the year to date, making it the most-watched kids' show on the platform, and on Facebook, for that matter, with more than 500 million views in South Africa this year. SpongeBob SquarePants is one of the world's most loved and recognised animated TV characters, loved by children and adults across many diverse cultures and making it the perfect case study for exploring globalisation through the isiZulu dubbing.

It is also something appreciated by the person chuckling along with Laugh in Your Language as part of the Savannah Comedy Bar on Comedy Central and BET Africa's Culture Code.

By reflecting on our culture, we are telling our people they matter—our experiences matter. When a little girl watches Lerai, the first female African presenter of Nickelodeon, she knows that one day she, too, will see her own goals turned into a reality.

This is what inspires our ongoing search for local talent and our investment in the stories we believe need to be told. We know that the more of these stories we uncover, the stronger the heritage we will leave behind us. We inspire, empower, and give them the confidence to tell their own stories – in this way, we grow and evolve every day.

Our stories are the stories of our people. And the best way we can contribute to this is through authentic African storytelling. From shows like Inside Life to Redemption, from Culture Code to The Big Secret, from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Ma'Mkhize's Homecoming – our themes are inspired by the life lived in South Africa today.

By telling these stories, we are keeping them safe for a new generation – and, in so doing, we are creating another dimension of culture to be celebrated and observed in years to come.

Monde Twala.
Monde Twala.

- Monde Twala is the Senior Vice President, General Manager, Paramount Africa & Peer Lead at BET International.

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