NEWS & ANALYSIS

The TV shows the world really needs

Andrew Donaldson on how Jacob Zuma could reinvent himself as a reality TV star

A FAMOUS GROUSE

SOME years back I had work done by a dentist who had a soft spot for Namibia and often visited the country. He was a keen photographer and his surgery was plastered with images of eerie Kolmanskop, the wildlife at Etosha and women in traditional undress.

Over the course of much drilling and gouging, he struck up one of those one-sided conversations that dentists invariably do when they have their hairy knuckles and items of machinery in your mouth and speech is utterly impossible. “Shame,” he said, “the Himba. You know them? Buggered, ruined for life…”

Glorrobbargh?

“Two things. We introduced them to alcohol, and we introduced them to soap. That’s all it took, two simple things. Booze and soap. Now they’re alcoholics with syphilis. Their way of life is disappearing. The last of the last true African pastoralists. Just more kak from the missionaries and us Europeans. Open wider…”

Haaarghhh…

Now comes a possibly even more insidious threat to a people who have largely managed to ignore the encroaches of modernity for the past century or so — reality television.

On Tuesday evening, viewers in the UK take in the first episode of Channel 4’s The British Tribe Next Door. The series follows the daily adventures of the Moffatts, a family from north-east England who were relocated to Namibia’s Kunene region to live for a month alongside a Himba community there. 

Not in huts, or even tents, mind you, but in an exact replica of their County Durham terraced home which had been built, brick by brick, in this remote part of the country and filled with more than 20 000 of the family’s personal items. Water had been trucked in to spare the Himba’s limited supply. Generators powered the double-storey house and the Moffatts — grandmother Christine, parents Mark and Betty, and daughters Ava-Grace and Scarlett — were able to watch television and use the internet as if they were back at home.

Media reports suggest the jokes, where they do occur, are mostly at the Moffatts’ expense. When Mark Moffatt, for example, explains that back home he has to pick up and bag his dog’s turds, one bewildered Himba mutters, “These people and their ways.” Elsewhere, there is puzzlement at the Moffatts’ home. One tribesman is worried termites might destroy it, another that it is dangerously large, while another tries a staircase for the first time in his life. A young girl who has never seen a mirror before is startled at her own reflection.

Academics here have voiced the obvious concerns. It was unsettling, for example, that a white family should move in, literally lock, stock and barrel next door to a black settlement in huts given Namibia’s genocidal colonial history. “There is something a bit troubling about this being in a post-apartheid part of Africa,” Tim Allen, a development anthropologist, told The Times. “It’s a former mandate of South Africa that was administered by apartheid South Africa and has a history of genocidal violence on a mind-numbing scale.”

The juxtaposition of clothed Europeans with naked locals — essential for Channel 4’s viewership figures — was also troubling, according to Professor Alcinda Honwana, strategic director of the Africa Centre at the London School of Economics.

“I think the intention might have been good — bridging cultures — but my concern is: why the Himba?” Honwana said. “The women are naked, breasts showing. It might bring back this kind of exotifying of Africans. It is a bit of a stereotype. And more and more I hear from my students at the LSE, coming from Africa, that ‘We are tired of the image of Africa as backwards, as famine, as everything dreadful.’ Africa is a more complex Africa than what is being portrayed.

“The Himba are just an exception. Why go to this extreme? We could look at a villager in England and a more regular villager in Africa, not from one of those indigenous tribes, and see the difference between them. It would be more representative of what Africa is today.”

Exactly. And when next considering their TV programming, perhaps executives at Channel 4 should consider putting several British families in the compound at Nkandla to spend a month or two there with the present occupants. 

They’d have to be fairly large families, just to even up the numbers. It may seem a bit exorbitant, bringing out the equivalent of an English council estate, but common sense suggests that, with more people to film, a canny production team could shoot several different programmes simultaneously and thereby save time and money in the long run. Given talk that the former security minister, David Mahlobo, has no doubt already littered the place with hidden cameras and listening devices, optimum “fly on the wall” material is virtually guaranteed.

Producers would certainly be spoilt for choice when it comes to the types of programmes to make. The “reality genre”, if I may, is certainly a very broad church. 

One obvious “winner” (if that is the term) is a show where local maidens literally go toe to toe with their English counterparts in nail varnishing contests as they loll about in bikinis at the fire pool waiting for the virginity tester. Product placement opportunities, from garish sunglasses to posh booze, abound in this potential cash cow.

Speaking of product placements, a Top Gear-type extravaganza is another possibility. The big difference here with the more familiar BBC show is that our dapper host, the ethical businessman Duduzane Zuma, will not be testing the limits of old vehicles in a quirky and humorous manner. Rather, he’ll just drive brand new high-performance sports cars into them.

Duduzane’s father, meanwhile, could be kept quite busy. Not a bad thing, as he apparently does need the money what with the legal bills piling up. 

One idea for a children’s programme, tentatively titled Counting with Uncle Jacob, was prompted by Zuma’s extraordinary singing performance outside the KwaZulu-Natal High Court earlier this week following the adjournment of his corruption trial to February next year. 

He had turned the 1950s folk song, Senzeni Na? (What Have We Done?), a mournful tune traditionally sung at the funerals of apartheid victims, into a bellow of martial triumphalism. So astounding was this transformation that MK veterans outside the court burst into paroxysms of one-legged hopping and rolling on the floor. 

This enthusiasm for Accused Number One so moved Carl Niehaus, the noted revolutionary, that he posted a video clip of the jollity on Twitter. It seems only fair, then, that he too should have a role in Counting with Uncle Jacob.

Its premise is simple. “Uncle Jacob” sings Senzeni Na? and the children tell him, “Fraud! That’s what you’ve done!” 

There will obviously be much in the way of eye-rolling and cackling about political conspiracies and white lawyerly ways but the kids don’t buy it and shout back, “Hundreds of counts of fraud!” They then help “Uncle Jacob” count to 783. The fun is amped up when he gets to “one hundred and eleventy two” and has to start again. During the boring bits, the kids amuse themselves by throwing food at a dancing Niehaus who has convinced himself that his camouflage fatigues have made him invisible.

Zuma will also helm The Big Bale-Out, which is loosely based on The Apprentice. Very loosely. One by one, contestants put forward hare-brained proposals to save bankrupt and broken state-owned entities. The Thief-in-Chief presides over a board of learned economists and business experts who advise him on the fiscal idiocy and impracticality of these proposals and suggest feasible alternatives. 

Each week, Zuma sacks the board member whose contribution is the most sensible and his or her place is taken by that particular episode’s biggest moron/loyalist. A prime candidate here would be Mzwandile Masina, a former deputy minister of trade and industry in the Gupta government who’s now mayor of Ekurhurleni. Earlier this week, he tweeted a proposal on reviving a flagging manufacturing sector that suggests the bottom of the barrel is way deeper than initially suspected:

“Democracy is nice and good, but to get our full independence from Western Imperialists we must close down the Durban Harbor so that no Minerals leave this country. In that way, International Manufacturing will descend to SA since we hold 90% of platinum, which the Works so need.” (sic)

Gradually it dawns on the economic fundis that, in order to survive the weekly cull, they must pass themselves off as fools as well so as not to confuse “the chair” with notions deemed to be “colonial” or smacking of “white monopoly capital”. The last such “clever” to be kicked off the show is awarded a small statuette that suspiciously resembles Pravin Gordhan. There are no losers left on the board, and all the idiots are showered with cash.

The braver of the British visitors, certainly those with either cast-iron constitutions or a modest death wish, may want to consider taking part in MaNtuli’s Great Nkandla Bake-Off — if, that is, producers can get the go-ahead for this gustatory blow-out. 

The former president’s estranged First Lady Number Two has reportedly been banished from the homestead for allegedly trying to poison her husband, a charge Nompumelelo Ntuli vehemently denies. It may take some persuading — a backhander or two, say — to get our chef back into the kitchens there. Local fried chicken franchises have meanwhile indicated a willingness to lay on truckloads of happy meals should participants come over all delicate and declare a certain fussiness when it comes to traditional fare.

Another possibility is I’m a Cadre, Get Me Outta Here!, a Survivor-styled knock-off in which firebrand Zuma loyalists compete with one another as they prepare a written assignment as directed by a disciplinary committee. In this battle of wits, contestants must do whatever it takes to successfully negotiate such hazards as a mobile library’s index card system and finding the cash to bribe whoever’s marking their papers.

This original idea was inspired by the punishment recently handed down by the party’s KZN leadership on 14 supporters of disgraced Zandile Gumede, who was removed as eThekiwini mayor after being charged with corruption and fraud over a R208-million solid waste tender. 

The 14, who had been found guilty of breaching the party’s constitution by marching in protest at her dismissal, were given a month to turn in 600-word essays on “democratic centralism, the negative effects of factionalism on the organisation, and the meaning of unity and renewal in the current phase of the organisation.”

A daunting task, admittedly, and perhaps a little too dry and academic for television. I’m a Cadre… will therefore opt for more viewer-friendly assignments such as “What I did on holiday” and “My family and other pets.”

One proposal, however, that probably won’t make it past initial production meetings is a revival of the successful Bollywood bonanza, My Big Fat Gupta Wedding. This 2013 smash hit really had everything that you’d want in a modern pay-per-view programming: spectacle, music, fat men, thin women, heaving bosoms, lust for shoes, jewels, elephants, dancers, fountains and water features, armed escorts, an air force base, shiny limos, international intrigue, grubbing politicians, strange moustaches, brown envelopes and much, much more besides. Except, of course, black masseuses.

But, you know, there may be budgetary restraints this time round as most of the tom is in Dubai. Which does suggest a travel programme on practical tips for packing in a hurry and fleeing the country…