Long-lost family members are reunited in an episode of the often heart-wrenching reality TV show Khumbul’ekhaya.
(Image: TV SA)

There is a brand of reality TV that is quietly moving hearts and changing minds. It’s not the flashy, voyeuristic commercial kind that so many of us love to hate, but a far softer, more socially conscious strand – and it’s leaving its mark. Executive producer Anton Burggraaf examines the new genre.

Reality TV has undergone rapid change in the past decade. It has become a big money-spinner, perhaps due to an aggressive tabloid voyeurism and the headline-grabbing ego-antics of its “stars”. It’s true that many people dismiss reality TV as contrived. That is a considerable irony when one reflects on the meaning of the word. But then not all reality formats are exploitative, or guilty of manipulating participants’ and viewers’ emotions, or people’s dreams, or their good looks. Really.

Docu-reality is one such strand of reality TV – or is it a strand of documentary? Here documentary filmmaking combines with reality TV conventions: viewers follow the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, witness subtly activated interventions, and follow the process of change that unfolds.

The results can be potent, emotive entertainment served up in a socially relevant narrative. And when it works well, it can even be a tool for social change.

Two docu-reality shows enter 2011 with an excellent track record of doing all that.

Khumbul’ekhaya and Relate are SABC1’s Wednesday night serious entertainment offering, alternating at the 9pm slot. They are not alone in the national broadcaster’s reality line up but they represent a substantial shift towards socially relevant TV that plays to a mandate of entertainment as well as conscience, and lives up to the broadcaster’s commitment “to tell Mzansi stories”. It is a conscious attempt by the channel to occupy the “emotainment” or “fix it” space. In the past, shows like Zola 7 led the pack but now this strand has matured.

Both Khumbul’ekhaya and Relate have simple propositions and this may account for their success. They both regularly enjoy a market share of 30% to 40%, which is roughly two-thirds the market share of the hugely popular soap Generations. But both touch a different popular nerve as you soon find out listening to Thursday morning conversations on taxis, buses, trains and in the workplace. The stories are gritty, real and – vitally – empathetic to the daily struggles of South Africans.

Khumbul’ekhaya is isiZulu for “remember home”. The key proposition is reuniting long lost family members. As the host Andile Carelse reminds viewers each week, “Write in and we will reconnect you.”

Apartheid shattered the South African family structure and left in its wake a great deal of relationship dysfunction. It caused the breakup of families and helped breed a culture of violence. By tracing long-lost relatives and bringing estranged family members back together, the show creates an opportunity for healing. Khumbul’ekhaya sets out to see if long standing feuds and familial rifts that sometimes span generations can be mended. This is the simple genius of the show.

Enel Viljoen, Khumbul’ekhaya production manager, recalls the show’s origins: “One of the originators is John Kani, a key figure in the early days of Urban Brew. He got the idea while travelling around the country when he often found himself asked if he knew of a certain person, a family member, as if he had some magic power to find them.”

For the producing team, the stories are dramatic and heart-wrenching, especially when the subjects are old people and children.

For Viljoen, the pleasure in producing the show lies in the results: “When you see families reconnected after so many years it makes your job totally worthwhile. It’s successful because it’s touching and it’s real. People relate.”

Vuyiswa Tshangela, the resident director of the current series, is passionate about the show’s power for social good. “It means so much to me to be creating this show because if you want to heal a nation, you start by healing the family.”

Khumbul’ekhaya works with the Department of Social Development, who help the production team in the planning phase and then follow up with the participants once filming has wrapped. “It’s a big weight off the directors’ shoulders,” Viljoen says. “The subject matter haunts you afterwards and you ask yourself, are these people okay? Assisting us by following up with the people we’ve featured helps a lot.”

Khumbul’ekhaya delivers high emotion and a tissue boxes full of tears most nights. The show has won numerous awards, including 3 Safta awards for Best Factual Entertainment programme (2007, 2008, 2009) and a US International Film and Video Festival Award for Best Reality TV show (2006). It starts a sixth season in mid-February 2011.


Counsellor-host Angie Diale gives a troubled family a talking-to on Relate.

Relate is the Khumbul’ekhaya running partner. These two shows alternate quarterly in the Wednesday 9pm slot.

“Helping people relate better” is the Relate tagline. On Relate there is little reuniting to be done as the basis for the show is often the tension between two people already in a relationship. Furthermore, it is the dynamic between the show’s counsellor-host Angie Diale and the troubled participants that gives Relate its edge.

Sis’ Angie tells it like it is: with brutal kasi honesty. She invites a feuding or alienated couple into her home where they are encouraged to speak truthfully and openly about each other and the situation. She then mediates, takes advice from a third party and gives practical tasks in the hope of resolving differences. She does not shy away from tough love and – like an agony aunt – she says out loud what everyone is thinking. Relate is national counselling, in the nation’s living rooms.

There is a sizeable studio discussion segment but the set up and the tasks play out in the real world. This where the power lies Relate asks people to confront their fears and tackle a situation head on. The result is a clear and palpable shift in perception – both the characters’ and viewers’. It’s worth remembering that SABC1’s core audience is generally one that cannot afford or has actually never considered psychological therapy. The effect is ground-breaking. The tasks have a high success rate, making people identify, understand and tackle their interpersonal challenges as most participants find common ground and get a kickstart towards reconciliation.

Relate producer Nthabiseng Mokoena says the show forces people to connect. “A lot of the characters have swept their issues under the carpet, and the show gives them the opportunity to fix things with family, friends or loved ones.”

But as with Khumbul’ekhaya, creating the show is often stressful for the crew, as they uncover relationship issues that involve issues as disturbing as rape, incest, hate crime and domestic violence. Mokoena: “We feel complicit in putting these peoples’ issues out there and it is especially hard when they are not resolved.”

Ochre Moving Pictures executive producer Stan Joseph agrees. “The show pulls no punches but it also gives ordinary people a platform to see things differently, to turn their circumstances around. But it takes courage and commitment, and we are humbled by the manner in which the participants have grabbed the opportunity so we can all learn.”

Relate is an honest attempt to get South Africans to look at themselves, in the belief that people can relate better, given tools and the opportunity. As the SABC website says, Relate is here to provide Mzansi with compelling and relevant educational healing through counselling. The plucky content made it one of SABC1’s top shows of 2009/10. The next series starts mid-May 2011.

Both shows explore difficult terrain but it’s stuff that is getting the nation thinking and talking. Two hot shows with hot agendas, changing hearts and minds.

That’s a pleasant reality.