Meet Phathutshedzo Makwarela, the man behind The River

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The River is one of South Africa’s most watched telenovelas and at the helm of its storyline is the 34-year-old Phathutshedzo “Phathu” Makwarela, an award-winning scriptwriter and co-founder at Tshedza Pictures.

Who better to speak to about the making of a telenovela than the man himself? He has all the ingredients to make a successful show and his work speaks for itself.

“A telenovela is like a short story. It’s a concept that was developed in Latin America,” said Phathu.

Contrary to traditional soapies that have a never-ending story arc and are usually centred on an ensemble cast, telenovelas are usually driven by one “dramatic, inviting incident that climaxes when the telenovela ends”. Telenovela story arcs usually play out over the course of a year.

The example Phathu uses is that of the first episode of The River, where Lindiwe (Sindi Dlathu) kills Tata Mokoena – the incident – and after that the story unravels, with people asking themselves if and when she’ll get caught.

He attributes the rise of telenovelas to the country’s love for drama.

“South Africans want their dramas every single day,” Phathu said.

His journey as a screenwriter dates back to 2013, Ferguson Films was commissioned to do a 10-part drama series for Mzansi Magic.

The Fergusons roped in Phathu and his business partner, Gwydion Beynon, as head writers and, just like that, Rockville was born and their careers at M-Net began.

The pair have grown into talented screenwriters who have worked on a number of great local shows.

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Phathu says there is no big secret to why viewers love telenovelas such as The River or The Queen. It all boils down to social realism.

“I think South Africans really want TV that reflects who they are and I think that’s the ingredient that makes a successful show.”

He believes South African audiences have a strong affinity for local content and says what makes sense in a good telenovela in a local context is how close to reality it is.

“For me, it’s that. It validates a society and that’s why so many people watch local content.”

He became interested in storytelling after observing ordinary people and what makes them tick, and wanting to give them relief from their everyday stresses.

His rationale is that if somebody is finally sitting down in the evening after a long stressful day, it’s better to put a smile on their face than make them feel miserable.

“That is always my drive and what inspires me is how you make people enjoy the end of their evening,” he said.

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The process of making a telenovela is quite complicated, a channel gives out a brief and agencies have to pitch their ideas based on that.

The process at Tshedza Pictures starts with unpacking the brief, looking at what’s already out there, as well as investigating the TV landscape and social consciousness of the audience.

Eventually, after they hash it out with Beynon, they come up with a concept to present, which may or may not be accepted.

Once it’s approved, the more complex process of putting together the story threads start. This part of the process may take months to put together.

Although Phathu acknowledges the success of the shows he works on, he says he’s grateful that he “gets to do my dream job every single day”.

He has been influenced by many people in his life, including American producer Aaron Spelling, who does similar work to his, and locally the likes of Mfundi Vundla, Duma ka Ndlovu and Skeem Saam creator Winnie Serite, who he believes is “probably the greatest storyteller in South Africa”.

The next big trend for TV or viewership patterns Phathu foresees is internet streaming, specifically video-on-demand (VOD).

He mentions that people no longer need to rush home for a show, but instead prefer to watch programmes at their convenience on platforms such as Showmax and DStv Catch Up. He notes, however, that VOD is likely to really take off once data costs decrease and internet becomes more accessible.

There is still more in store for his followers, Phathu hints, saying there will be a “new drama coming to Mzansi Magic” soon and that fans must keep a keen eye on the Sunday evening slot.

  • A Youth Month project inpartnership with MultiChoice
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