A look back at homosexuality on South African TV screens

Generations, 7de Laan and Igazi

In South Africa, television shows have often been at the forefront of making gays and lesbians a little more visible and human in the homes of millions of viewers. Angie Gallagher takes a look at how far we’ve come.

When I was in the final years of high school in 2004, an Emmy Award-nominated local series debuted on SABC 2. Zero Tolerance was a police drama that honestly tackled every socio-political taboo of the day (the Emmy-nominated episode drew inspiration from the horrific rape of a baby the media called Tshepang) and I would make sure to finish my homework early so that I’d be able to settle in front of the TV just after the Afrikaans news at 19:00.

Zero Tolerance was really a wonderful and well-produced drama, but my interest in it, if I’m being honest, was twofold: Zero Tolerance also featured a lesbian cop, played by Rolanda Marais. Just like me, Rolanda’s character, Hannelie de Kock, was very Afrikaans but also quite gay. Her relationship with Sedika de Bruyn (played by Kim Engelbrecht) was complicated, fascinating and real – and one that I had not seen portrayed on local television yet.

Before Hannelie and Sedika’s on-screen relationship, another SABC 2 drama series, 37 Honey Street, broke barriers for the gay community when it featured an on-screen kiss between Juliana Venter and Casey B. Dolan – albeit during a heavily-censored scene. The year was 1998.

Yizo Yizo paves the way

Writing about the history of gay kisses on South African television, Cameron Modisane points out the repercussions that a prison rape scene featured in the second season of the educational youth drama, Yizo Yizo, had: the scene set tongues wagging in parliament, where a number of MPs called for the programme to be banned due to the homosexual nature of the episode. Almost two decades ago, Yizo Yizo started a vital conversation about the difference between sexual violence and consensual sexual relations between people of the same sex.

Yizo Yizo 3 elaborated on that theme, and will forever be the first prime-time representation of a loving relationship – and a kiss – between two gay men, as more than 5 million viewers watched the episode in question on SABC 1 in June 2004. Modisane recalls that the relationship between Thiza (played by Tshepo Ngwane) and Thabang (played by Makhaola Ndebele) was also the first he had seen portrayed on national television – Thiza and Thabang were his Hannelie and Sedika.

Isidingo: The Need

After 21 years, Isidingo still graces the screens of local soapie buffs, and this series has been instrumental in bringing gay characters into the living rooms of its viewers. In 2006, just five days after same-sex marriage became legal, Steve (Emmanuel Castis) and Luke (Gary D’Alessandro) sealed their own on-screen union with a kiss. Since then, Isidingo has featured a number of gay and bisexual characters, including Prada Naicker (Ashish Gangapersad), Dennis M (Ashley Dowds), Len Cooper (Chris Beasly), Paul McPherson (Carl Beukes) and, more recently, the character Thabang, played by Pholoso Mohlala.

Gay characters on popular local TV shows seem to always restart conversations about homosexuality in the context of a maturing rainbow nation. Society’s (2007) Beth, played by Sibulele Gcilitshana, showed that coming out is a struggle, even if a person is successful in life and happy in their relationship. Closeted soccer star Two-Step (portrayed by Abdul Khoza) ultimately decides to adhere to society’s expectations of him in the popular series InterSEXions in 2013. Two-Step ends his relationship with Sizwe (Pallance Dladla) and gets engaged to the female journalist who threatens to expose his same-sex relationship.

The topic of men who have sex with men (MSM) was a central plot point in After Nine (2007), when China (Lucky Khoza) and Hector’s (Aaron Moloisi) relationship was discovered by his pregnant girlfriend Bokang (Matshepo Maleme).

Grappling to reconcile religious beliefs and sexuality came to the fore for Rhythm City’s Stone, played by Zenzo Ngqobe, in 2008. The backlash to Generations’ inclusion of a black gay couple, Senzo (Thami Mngqolo) and Jason (Zolisa Xaluva) showed that the idea of two black men in love still didn’t sit easily with viewers of South Africa’s most popular soap in 2009. Generations – The Legacy would push the boundaries even further in 2016 by featuring a transgender character in Wandile Radebe (Chiedza Mhende) – this would also be the first time a transgender character was featured in a local soap opera.

Zabalaza (2015) and Umlilo (2016) touched on lesbian relationships, while Igazi (2016) looked at a gay relationship as it pertains to a Xhosa royal family’s conflict over the throne – the social media furore over Oros Mampofu’s character would precede downright outrage about Inxeba’s portrayal of gay affection in specific cultural contexts a year later.

Reinforcing traditional ideas about Afrikaans-speaking viewers and their attitudes towards homosexuality, Afrikaans soaps were a little more wary of upsetting viewers, it would seem, and close to two decades after it first aired, 7de Laan did cause quite a raucous by featuring a same-sex kiss between minor characters Logan (Simon Tuit) and Divan (Arnu de Villiers) in 2017. The introduction of a trans character would come in the same year, when actress and art and drama teacher Deonay Balie briefly played the character Geneviève on the soapie.

The role of edutainment in popular TV shows

Speaking to Sowetan about his character on Mzansi Magic’s iKhaya (2018), Sphamandla Dhludhlu emphasised the urgency of having gay characters portrayed on the small screen.

“Playing Lindani has really made me empathetic to what they have to go through. My stance when it comes to sexuality has always been to accept people for who they are.

“I am just an actor who is playing a gay character yet that alone has attracted some hate, so I can only imagine what gay people go through on a daily basis. It’s not right and things have to change.”

Mohale Motaung, actor and fiancé of Somizi, who recently played the role of Odirile in MTV Shuga: Down South, agrees.

“As an openly gay man, I’m fortunate to have the support of my family and my fiancé, Somizi, but not all South African youth, especially those growing up in conservative and traditional households, experience the same level of acceptance.

“That’s why programmes like MTV Shuga play such a crucial role in informing the youth and helping them realise they are not alone and for me, it’s all about edutainment,” Motaung told Independent Online.

The history of homosexuality on local television didn’t start with Hannelie de Kock, but it did crack the closet door just a little more open for me. I would only be totally comfortable with identifying as a gay woman about a decade after Zero Tolerance aired, but the fact that Hannelie’s character existed was important to me as a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality.

Even if gay characters on popular TV shows still draw the ire of some conservative viewers, the importance of their existence in popular culture can never be overstated. Visibility not only plays a role in changing society’s view on queer people but also helps those who are struggling with their identity to feel not quite so alone in the world.

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