Gugu (Gugulethu) Zuma-Ncube is the brains behind some of the most popular and award-winning shows in South Africa; ‘Uzalo’ (Sabc 1), ‘EHestola’ (Mzansi Magic) and ‘Durban Gen’ (eTV). She chats to Blacklight about storytelling in the rapidly changing TV landscape.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
All images supplied
Gugu may have had her first break as a television actor, appearing on 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, during the lockdown it pulled a record-breaking 11 million viewers.
The daughter of the former president Jacob Zuma and the Minister of Cooperative Governance Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma; is intent on creating her legacy, 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 have already bid farewell to iconic TV shows, Isidingo, Rhythm City and Isibaya. Gugu believes that this will be an exciting time that will result in more opportunities and more content for local audiences.
We had a chat with the multi-talented star about her career, telling stories and the future of television.
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, relatable stories. We are committed to telling stories that don’t judge the audience. Stories that reflect who we are, celebrate us, and also shows our daily struggles. Our style is about using colourful characters, melodrama, and 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; to 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 if I am fully there yet. I have learned to appreciate my gift and the appreciation from the people has been amazing! I truly 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 City, feels like a lifetime ago. Those shows helped launch your career as an actor; how did you feel when you learned that they are coming to an end?
GZN: I definitely would not be where I am today without those shows. It’s always sad when something has to come to an end, especially something that has been part of lives for more than a decade, and a permanent fixture in local television. People in our industry have come through those shows, whether it’s part of the crew or the cast. As much as it is sad; good things have to come to an end.
The TV industry is changing fast, and 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 that will help us carry on doing what we love doing – telling stories. Even 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 the way that we tell stories as TV producers. We may have to be a little bit smarter about our business model to continue to work in this era. But, this is a good change, because it means more content and more 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 of working behind the scenes even when I was in front of the camera. When I made the move, it felt it was the right time; I was at a place where I could take that risk to branch out. It was exciting but challenging because it was stepping into new territory, especially as a young black female, then. I also found a brilliant partner in Pepsi Pokane. We have a brilliant working relationship. He knows the business of television very well and that works well with what I bring to the table, which is stories.
We have been through a period in South Africa where producers, showrunners and writers telling black stories were not black. But in the past ten years, there have been new opportunities for black storytellers to tell their own stories, which has resulted in shows that audiences connect with.
BL: You have also created other shows, like EHostela and Ifalakhe. What is the common thread with your stories that give it 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 our humility, the dignity, the pride, 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 story or show we are doing.
BL: EHostela just came is 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, and that’s 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: I don’t think it was ahead of its time; it was long overdue. The fact that we 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 not a true depiction of what we know ourselves to be.
For example, Shaka Zulu, which we all loved and grew up on, but the aesthetic of that show 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. So, 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 to bring new faces on television?
GZN: It’s so difficult. In the beginning show, the fun part was writing before casting anyone for the roles. The characters lived mostly 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 always have to be guided by the story and let it inform our decisions. It’s difficult, but it’s part of storytelling. And also if we keep characters for longer than we should, then we run the risk of being repetitive with our storyline. Bringing in new characters always opens up the story. 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 also going back to our DNA, good vs Evil, church and everything rooted in family. We are going back to a clear definition of boundaries, whether good or bad. And also, going back to our socially responsible stories that the audience always 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 is always exciting.
Catch uZalo every weekday on Sabc 1 at 20h30.