Gugu Gugulethu Zuma-Ncube is the brains behind some of the most popular and award-winning shows in Mzansi, Uzalo (SABC 1), eHestola (Mzansi Magic) and Durban Gen (SABC 2). She chats to Blacklight about storytelling in the rapidly changing TV landscape.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Gugu may have had her first break as a television actor, appearing in Interrogation Room (2007), Isidingo (Sabc 3) and Rhythm City (eTV)- but it’s through producing that she has received great success. The TV content creator is the brains behind the undisputed most watched soapie in South Africa, Uzalo, which pulled a record-breaking 11 million viewers during the lockdown.
The daughter of the former president Jacob Zuma and the Minister of Cooperative Governance Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma; is intent on creating her legacy, and so far, she has been on a winning streak.
But with the digital era, TV appears to be facing the threat of being eclipsed by streaming platforms. This year we bid farewell to iconic TV shows, Isidingo, Rhythm City and Isibaya. So what does this mean for the local television landscape? Gugu believes this will be an exciting time that will lead to more opportunities and content for local audiences.
Blacklight: Why do you think so many people resonate with Uzalo?
Gugu Zuma-Ncube: We made a deliberate decision from the beginning that we were going to tell South Africa stories, township stories, and relatable stories. We are committed to telling stories that don’t judge the audience. Stories that reflect who we are, celebrate us and show our daily struggles. Our style is about using colourful characters and melodrama – that resonates with a lot of people. The pace of the storyline is quick and fast. We don’t want to drag the stories for too long until they lose steam. We also listen to the audience and continue to engage with them so we can continue to evolve every season.
BL: We are in an era where the audience is quite opinionated and is not scared to voice criticism. How do you handle criticism from the audience?
GZN: Criticism is just a part of life. There is no one successful in life who doesn’t take/face criticism. You have to take [valid] criticism and make the necessary adjustments. I also believe that no one can produce something that pleases everyone, so you have to know what is beyond your control and also be able to take on legitimate criticism that can help you grow.
BL: This was your first big project as a producer; what did it teach you about yourself?
GZN: I started with Uzalo, but over the years, we have added more shows like eHostela and iFalakhe. I have never stopped learning – from the beginning to this point. I love working in teams. I love bringing out the best, creatively, in the people that I work with. I believe I have a talent that I still need to hone and learn to use in the best and most efficient ways. I have been working on it for years, and I am not sure I am fully there yet. I have learned to appreciate my gift, and the appreciation from the people has been amazing. I love telling stories. I love the people that help me bring stories to life, the crew, the cast etc.
BL: We first came to know you from soapies like Isidingo and Rhythm Cit. Those shows helped launch your career as an actor; how did you feel when you learned that they were coming to an end?
GZN: I would not be where I am today without those shows. It’s always sad when something comes to an end; especially something that has been part of our lives for more than a decade and was a permanent fixture on local television. People in our industry have come through those shows, whether part of the crew or the cast. Even though it is sad, good things have to come to an end eventually. The TV industry changing fast; shows won’t last as long as in the years of Days of our Lives and the Bold And the Beautiful. The trends are shifting. We have to be flexible enough to be able to adapt to this new era. All the producers, writers, directors and cast from those shows are immensely talented, and I am sure they will be part of something great again.
BL: Talking about change: streaming services are the future. As a television producer, doesn’t that scare you?
GZN: I have never been one who is afraid of change. I am more excited and looking forward to it. It will come with new opportunities to carry on doing what we love doing: Telling stories. Looking back, we only had a handful of channels, and now there is this explosion of TV channels. This will also force us to change how we tell stories as TV producers. We may have to be smart about our business model to continue to work in this era. But, this is a good change because it means more content options for audiences.
BL: You are one of the few black female showrunners in South Africa; how was the transition from being on camera to behind the scenes?
GZN: For me, it was quite a natural transition. I always had aspirations to work behind the scenes, even while I was in front of the camera. When I made the move it felt like it was the right time; I was at a place where I could take that risk to brunch out. It was exciting but challenging because it was stepping into new territory, especially as a young black female. I also found a brilliant partner in Pepsi Pokane. We have a brilliant working relationship. He knows the TV business very well and that works well with what I bring to the table – stories.
BL: You have also created other shows, like ‘eHostela” and “iFalakhe”. What is the common thread with your stories that give them your imprint?
GZN: I am just telling black stories that show black people in great light. The stories reflect us as we know ourselves to be. It’s all about finding the humility, the dignity, the pride, and the strength that exists in black people. We are unapologetic in what we do, which is to tell our stories in a way that will fill us with pride. We are just unflinching in that mandate with whatever storytelling.
BL: “EHostela” just came back on screen, but what is happening with “iFalakhe”; can we expect another season?
GZN: We love iFalakhe, but there is nothing concrete as yet. The broadcaster also loves it and the audience as well. Hopefully will come together and come up with something soon.
BL: “iFalakhe” was a period piece, a genre that is not fully explored here in South Africa. Do you think maybe you were a bit far-ahead with the show?
GZN: No. I don’t think it was ahead of its time; it was long overdue. The fact that South Africans do not have pre-colonial material that we have authored is troubling. We didn’t have anything that showed us as we were in those times and written, produced and directed by us. That is probably why the depiction of our pre-colonial dramas and media documentation look the way they look, which is problematic. It almost feels reductive and an untrue depiction of what we know ourselves to be. For example, Shaka Zulu, which we all loved and grew up on, but that aesthetic is so brown.
I come from KwaZulu-Natal, and there is nothing brown about KZN. It’s green, lush, and beautiful. That speaks volumes about what they wanted us to believe about ourselves. It’s great to create a show that rectifies how we have been represented in the media. And we also wanted to revive our historical content on screen.
BL: Going back to Uzalo, people get so attached to the characters on that show. How hard is it to kill off characters and bring new faces on television?
GZN: It’s so difficult. At the beginning show, the fun part was writing before we cast anyone for any specific role. The characters lived in our minds. Now that we have characters that have been with us for years, it becomes a difficult decision to kill off or let go of those characters.
But primarily, we are guided by the story and let it inform our decisions. If we keep characters longer than we should, then we run the risk of being repetitive with our storyline. Bringing in new characters always opens the story more. So it is necessary even though it’s heartbreaking for all parties.
BL: What can we expect from Uzalo in this new era?
GZN: With Uzalo, as much as we are going forward, we are also going back to our DNA, good vs Evil, church and everything rooted in family. We need a more clear definition of boundaries, whether good or bad. We are also going back to our socially responsible stories that the audience loves. The last one we did was around albinism and went a long way in educating our audience on a real issue. So we are doing a lot more of that this time around. And of course, bringing new characters which are always fresh and exciting.
Catch uZalo every weekday on Sabc 1 at 20h00.