Duma Ndlovu tells stories for black people, with their culture and subtexts
No white writers. Telling African stories from an African perspective. These are the reasons Uzalo is now the country’s most popular TV drama.
“It’s simple,” booms television producer and playwright Duma Ndlovu, on how Uzalo went from 5 million viewers a night to 8 million in less than a year.
“We tell stories in a way that makes our people see themselves in them. What has made Uzalo a hit is the fact that people from KwaMashu and around Durban see themselves in the characters.
“We are all storytellers. We grew up seeing what happens in our families and communities. Everybody’s life is full of drama, but it’s just how the stories are told and portrayed.”
Ndlovu, who turned 61 last Monday, says this is one of the reasons he established Word of Mouth Productions in 1992 after 15 years in exile.
“I found that South African stories were being told from a foreign perspective on television.”
His first production was the now 18-year-old Tshivenda drama Muvhango (The Feud). The story began with a polygamous man, Mashudu, who died of a heart attack five minutes into the first episode.
“One of my first fights with a writer was when I threw out a part with VhoMasindi (Mashudu’s wife from rural Venda) going to work in a field with a hoe soon after her husband had died.”
Ndlovu says there is no way a rural African woman would work when her husband had just died. She would be expected to sit on a mattress and mourn him.
“On Uzalo, there was a script that had children addressing their parents by their first names. There is no way a Zulu child is going to call her father ‘Richard’. And just look how Gxabhashe [the clan name by which Muzi Xulu, played by Mpumelelo Blose, is addressed] has caught up.”
Uzalo followers will be pleased to hear that Gxabhashe, who disappeared after being shot, will soon be back on their screens.
“We tell stories in a way people can relate to them. Watching, say, an ilobolo negotiation scene, a viewer says: ‘That’s my uncle. I have an uncle just like that.’”
President Jacob Zuma’s daughter Gugulethu Zuma-Ncube and Pepsi Pokane became his co-executive directors for Uzalo when “they approached the government with a similar idea and were told to meet me with a view that we work together”.
Ndlovu says cultural nuances are very important.
“I am no longer as involved in writing as I was in the beginning, but I have the final say on cultural matters and behaviour.”
He says some writers and directors try to emulate societies that are strange to the local audience. They bring stories from other continents and have black people translate them.
“They might be funny, but people will say: ‘This is not us.’ It is such textures, subtexts, nuances and small things that count.
“We tell stories in pictures rather than shooting pictures with stories in them. With translated films, the concepts are foreign. The story line is from a foreign society.”
So confident was Ndlovu with the Uzalo concept that “I told people that we would attract 5 million viewers in our first episode, which happened. And within four months we became number one.”
For Ndlovu, there is more theatre work on the cards. “I have just finished writing three more plays, with one called The Photograph,” he says.
He also conducts acting workshops every Thursday. “I started with these five years ago when I realised there was a flurry of acting graduates hitting the market and auditioning for parts.
“I also realised that every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he can actually act,” he says.
“Acting is a skill, but you also need education. We have an intake of 50 students every year and we give those who do well certificates at the end of the course.”
Viewership Numbers: Uzalo - 8 098 000; Generations - 7 226 000; Skeem Saam - 6 076 000; Muvhango - 4 226 000; Isidingo - 2 658 00