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What a Vendaful world

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By Debashine Thangevelo

ON the back of returning after 15 years in the US, Duma ka Ndlovu’s observations planted the seed for SABC2’s Muvhango.

A notable filmmaker, poet, playwright and journalist, his creativity as a TV producer propelled him to pursue an unexplored facet – the Venda culture – on the small screen.

And it proved to be a goldmine. At Ka Ndlovu’s last recollection the show boasted a crossover audience of about three million, not that he pays heed to ratings as the storyline gets his full attention.

Despite being on directorial duty on the soap’s set this week, the 58- year-old granted Tonight an interview to chat about his illus- trious journey with Muvhango.

“I apologise, if it seemed I was being difficult,” he says. “I’m directing this week.”

A man of his stature displaying such humbleness was most heart-warming and rather telling, more so given past controversies involving disgruntled actors.

By the way, he is on “speaking terms with everyone who has left”.

He states: “We are not horrible to people. We try as a production company to make it a home. When a person leaves, if they are objective, they leave with not such a bitter taste. At the end of the day, I do what I am here to do and I don’t thrive on negativity.”

After responding to the latter issue, he expresses his feelings on Muvhango being the second longest-running soap in South Africa.

Ka Ndlovu laughs: “You look over your shoulder and say: ‘Has it been that long?’ I still can’t believe it. It has been an exciting journey. They say, ‘time flies when you have fun’. I think we have had fun with this – so much so that we haven’t noticed some of the milestones we have had along the way.”

He revisits the time when the idea germinated: “It might sound like I am blowing my own horn. When I came back from the US, I looked at the local landscape in terms of television. Contrary to people wondering if it would work or not, I targeted a gap.

“When the first episode aired on a Monday at 7.30pm, at a time when people should be watching the Zulu news, that is when the reaction hit. We were more satisfied that we predicted it accurately.”

Muvhango first aired on April 7, 1997, as a 13-episode drama set in Joburg and Thathe village in Venda.

Three seasons later, the growing interest snowballed into SABC2 giving Word of Mouth Productions the green light for a weekly soap slot.

The executive producer points out: “One of the consequences of the show is that it took the Venda language to dizzying heights. I think the 1.5 million Venda-speaking people in the country agree that Muvhango put their language and culture on the map like no other single thing has done before.

“So that was an amazing achievement and, for me, the crowning glory.”

As for his secret weapon in ensuring the loyalty of fans never wanes, he admits: “The objective is to keep the aunties watching and happy while, in contemporising our stories, we also rope in their Model C children.”

He expands: “From the initial stages, we understood our stories had to be authentic. We didn’t have to create some utopia. We simply had to tap into our very own lives. We needed to research to ensure we didn’t deviate or insult cultures. All we had to do was look into society and mirror the people we are talking about, whether they are our aunts, uncles, nephews…

“I am a great fan of Richard Pryor, who described himself as an observer of life and takes it on screen, to ensure people can laugh and cry at themselves,” Ka Ndlovu says.

Over the years, he has given actors the perfect platform to launch their careers. Something Khanyi Mbau and Khabonina Qubeka will attest to.

Not wanting to name-drop, he simply offers: “I feel extremely proud to ‘discover’ young people who weren’t known and to take them from there to what South Africa calls ‘the celebrity circuit’. It is about giving the young the right instruments in life, whether it is for Susan (Maumela Mahuwa) or Pfuluwani (Azwi Malak).

“We discovered people like Khanyi, Khabonina and Themba Nofemele (Thandazo’s husband). Also, our theme and objective has always been to not use established actors but to give an opportunity to new voices,” he emphasises.

Ka Ndlovu also points out that the popularity of the soap’s characters, over the years, was more sympto- matic of the fantastic storylines they had written for them.

“I believe as writers, you can build anyone to become the biggest icon,” he notes.

Reflecting on past actors who curried favour with the soap’s viewers, Ka Ndlovu says: “Mara Louw was unforgettable as Catherine Mukwevho. We used her as an instrument to push a story – with her husband, Mashudu, dying and the family having a say in her life decisions as dictated by Venda tradition – that was very taboo circa 1997. She was amazing.

“Two young people very close to my heart were the actors who played a young Thandaza (Sindi Dlathu) and the original Doobsie (the late Lindiwe Chibi). These were actors I had faith in and wanted to develop. By the time Lindiwe was shot, the whole country had fallen in love with her.”

Interestingly, the Thandaza, Doobsie and Edward love triangle and KK and Meme’s abusive storyline, received the most reaction from viewers.

With a legacy to uphold, Ka Ndlovu hints: “We want to introduce another family. We have Meme and Pheko returning next year. We really have some great stories planned for January.

“I really don’t care much about ARs. When you tell good stories, viewers will watch. I have said to the SABC that my commitment is to ensure the stories are told well.”

Cheers to you, Mr Ka Ndlovu, a well-deserved milestone for you and the team indeed!

• Muvhango airs on SABC2 at 9pm from Monday to Thursday.

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