By Zanele Mhlaba
Regardless of new technologies and the other forms of mass media, there is and will always be a space and need for television. Unfortunately, we are missing that critical platform in Zimbabwe.
Growing up in the 1990s, ZBC was a huge part life for everyone. It may seem hard to believe now, but there was a point in time where people would disconnect their decoder so they could turn to ZBC. These days, it seems people only turn to “DeadBC” to watch the news hour or “comedy hour” as others call it because of how hilariously and sadly shambolic it can be.
In the past, no matter the household, from approximately 6:30pm to 8pm, Zimbabweans gathered around their television or their neighbour’s television for some local, primetime television. We were genuinely interested to find out what would happen next on whichever local drama was on at the time. The names Toby Waters, Silandulo, Madhumbe, Mai Sorobhi and, of course, Gringo, all meant something to us. And who could forget Parafini in that brown suit and purple jersey? I’m a bit young for Mukadota, but even that name meant something.
So much of what was on our screens resonated with us, in one way or another. The images and sounds were familiar. We danced and sang along to music videos on Ezomgido or Coke on the Beat – enjoying those last bits of TV before the dreaded 8pm News drums that signaled our bedtime. When a character picked up a telephone it was the PTC phone that we knew from our homes; when they were writing with a pen, we recognised it to be an Eversharp; and when they walked into an office or a house, we thought “Hey, that looks like so and so’s office or house.” Another big element was advertising. Whether it was the little boy and the rhino for Toughees, or the man with his ear to the ground waiting for Chibuku, or the students demanding Buttercup on their sandwiches – we knew the products and jingles and we sang along. In many ways, we constantly saw ourselves and the people and products around us through what was on ZBC.
There was something special about night-time television. As children, during the day, we may have watched Skippy, Xuxa, and other imported shows, but night-time television was different. We gathered with family and saw ourselves represented on TV screens, every single night. We saw people who looked like us, lived like us and spoke like us. Sometimes, we even saw people that we knew from church, school, or anywhere, really. TV was creating pop culture and a sense of pride in our people and products. And it felt good.
It was common to sit with people and discuss what happened on TV yesterday. Did you watch? Can you believe Uyu did that? Why is Nhingi so evil to her husband’s children? What do you think will happen next? Sometimes, you would even have the pleasure of retelling the story to someone who missed it.
But that was then. Now, ZBC is a shadow of itself and a disappointment to all of us.
As I visit people’s homes, I notice just how much things have changed. Very few will disconnect their decoder for anything. In addition to the decoder, they have stockpiles of DVDs that are constantly rotated in and out of the DVD player during times when there may not be enough money to subscribe to satellite. Once, while visiting someone, we watched all of their DVDs, and when there were no more, the TV was switched off for two days until a new DVD was borrowed from a neighbour. That may be an extreme case, but it illustrates the way in which ZBC is no longer considered an option, for many people. They would rather switch their television off for days than turn to ZBC.
This may not seem like an important national crisis. But it is. Too much of the media that we visually consume is imported. People are downloading and watching foreign series and movies but are missing stories and content that are relevant to their own lived experiences in Zimbabwe. I’ve often heard people say that Zimbabweans don’t have a sense of national identity or a common vision outside of politics. That you cannot really get a pulse on what we think or like or what is important to us. Television can play a part in those conversations. There are talented writers, producers, animators, musicians and actors who are able and willing to tell our stories and explore what it means to be Zimbabwean. But they do not have the platform.
At the 2013 NAACP Image Awards, actress Kerry Washington, had this to say: “Human beings are complicated and flawed and unique, but we all have a story to tell. Gone are the days when our lead characters can only look like someone else. Heroes look like all of us. We see ourselves in each other’s stories, we see who we are, we see who we want to be. Sometimes we see who we don’t want to be, and through that, we have greater understanding of ourselves and acceptance of each other.”
I agree with Washington. What we see on television has an impact on us and can do so much more than just entertain. We yearn to see ourselves represented, validated, or challenged on our screens. Whether you are a fan of television or not, you cannot deny its influence and its ability to shape and reflect cultural values, to create role models, to inform, to unite, and to spark debate.
ZBC is doing the country a disservice. The national broadcaster should be the platform through which citizens derive common reference points for larger, critical conversations. We need more nuanced exploration of various Zimbabwean stories. Our country is missing out on the benefits of proper television broadcasting and we need ZBC to be an option again.