Anton Burggraaf

Mzansi Magic’s new prime-time daily drama series Inkaba is a soap opera with a difference: the end is already in sight. It has been conceived in the style of a telenovela, a unique Latin American TV model set to make waves in the local industry.

Inkaba was launched on 19 March on Mzansi Magic and if you’ve seen the promo you'll have the gist of it: “Two families whose shared struggle created an unbreakable bond.” Set in the capricious world of fashion, Inkaba has two love stories at its core: a past relationship between a fierce patriarch (theatre stalwart John Kani) and two of his loves, and the current love relationships between their respective children. It’s a complex Romeo and Juliet love triangle that spans generations and dishes up contorted family affairs. It’s a soap after all. All this plays out in a diverse social landscape, from the uber-rich and powerful to the aspirant middle-class to the struggling masses.

“Inkaba” is Nguni for umbilical cord so Inkaba follows in the steps of Isidingo as an urban English-language soap with a vernacular name. The title is a neat echo of the themes of familial interconnectivity. According to the programme-makers, its literal meaning is “navel: a point from which energy and knowledge emerges and is reconstituted”. Traditional cultural and sacred birth rites – here and the world over – include burying a baby’s umbilical cord. This is the reason for the traditional greeting “Inkaba yakho iphi?”, which means: “Where is your navel?” Naturally your answer will tell people a lot about you: your place of birth, your clan identity and perhaps even your social status.

Watch interviews with the cast at the Inkaba launch:

Mzansi Magic has taken a gamble with this prime-time property. But the channel may be onto something, for two reasons.

The first is strategic scheduling. The show’s timeslot of 20h30 avoids clashing with soap opera’s big league, because it is slap-bang between heavyweights Generations and Muvhango. Inkaba’s strongest competition is SABC1’s Zone 14 and local serial dramas like Montana, as well as ETV’s sport shows. It is unlikely to ever garner the 4.9-million-odd viewers of Generations, but is well placed to make its mark on the satellite bouquet, especially as Mzansi Magic is part of the popular DStv Compact offering, aimed at lower-income earners.

The second reason is forward thinking. For this the channel has turned to a unique storytelling model, the Latin American telenovela. According to reports, an executive team from the M-Net stable went to Brazil and were blown away by the huge potential of this genre for South Africa. It must be noted that telenovelas are as familiar to generations of Brazilians as pap and wors is to us. The execs then ordered in some serious market research and promptly put out a commissioning brief to local TV producers. And so Mzansi Magic’s telenovela was born.

Lebone Maema, Mzansi Magic channel head, says Inkaba is the biggest production the channel has undertaken to date. “The authentic South African storyline, meaty characters and great scripts have secured the participation of some of the biggest names in the industry – both on-screen and behind the scenes.”

Inkaba is also M-Net’s biggest single investment after the stable’s big bet The Wild. So there appears to be a lot of faith in the ability of this genre to deliver. Will it? Judging by the success of the genre elsewhere, one would think so.

But let’s take a moment to understand what telenovela is.

The name is derived from “tele” (television) and “novela” (Spanish for novel). It is serialised long-form drama and has its origin in South America. The genre is often compared to English-language soap opera, perhaps because of a common lineage that goes back to serial radio drama of the 1930s. But telenovela has some distinct characteristics that are important to understand.

The most obvious distinction is series duration: a telenovela runs frequently for less than a year. This means that storylines are constructed with a beginning, middle and an end – usually climatic. So when it’s done, it’s done. There is none of the interminable narrative “stuckness” or ridiculous back-from-the-dead antics of standard soap opera.

Another important distinction is that telenovelas are used effectively for sociocultural messaging, a hallmark of the early popular days and hugely successful for some broadcasters with a social change agenda.

Noteworthy is the fact that most Latin American telenovelas were high melodrama until the mid-1960s. You know the deal: a romantic couple faces fierce resistance from their peers and rejection from family because they are in love. These early renditions were inspired by US radio serials and influenced by 19th century French serialised fiction. Interestingly, a huge raft of content was produced in pre-Castro Cuba, a crazy thought.

By the 1960s, the genre had spread like wildfire. Where it landed it was given local colour, as with arguably the most well-known of all telenovelas, Simplemente Maria (1969), from Peru. With echoes of Cinderella, the story concerned a struggling single mother who is trying to improve her lot. It highlighted problems of urban migration and is said to have led to a burgeoning of interest in sewing and adult literacy in that country. Remarkable. It was also one of the first examples of conscious-raising storytelling in this genre.

Brazil is a prolific champion of the genre – hence the trip to research Inkaba there. Telenovelas matured there and developed innovations like colloquial dialogue, first used in Beto Rockfeller (1970), the story of a cunning shoe-shop employee who inveigles his way into high society.

Watch clips from Beto Rockfeller:

As media analysts have noted, there is a fascinating relationship between telenovelas and national identity in Brazil where it concerns the emerging power of civil society and rapid urbanisation, particularly in pre-1980 periods of that country’s repressive and censorial regimes. Furthermore, recent times have seen a return to the genre’s agitprop roots. So previously taboo themes like urban violence, racism and homosexuality have begun to appear in Brazilian telenovelas.

Soap with a conscience. Truly a novel idea.

But telenovela and its methodology is not new to South Africa. A brief was put out by SABC a few years ago but it appears not to have been followed through.

Intsika, the controversial 2011 SABC1 drama, used telenovela character development and messaging models. The idea here was to test the waters and see if there was any traction, from which a longer series would be made. It stayed true to the genre by focusing on key issues. Executive producer Patronella Sello: “The series explore[d] issues that deeply affect South African society today and sought to change the mind set of audiences, and through this, effect behavioural change.” Set in a small, traditional Xhosa village in the Eastern Cape, the series tackled a young man’s journey to manhood, institutionalised corruption, and conflict from the clash of traditional values with a modern westernised culture.

For the makers of Inkaba, there is a similar desire to deliver story that touches a nerve and a narrative that develops and resolves.

Inkaba head writer Julie Barker, interviewed on entertainment website JustCurious, had this to say: “Creating characters and then keeping them trapped in a kind of emotional journey (i.e. he’s always evil, or she’s always good) year after year ultimately makes for boring television. I think the concept of something that lasts for a year but ends with a bang is good news for viewers ... It’s also good news for the industry – the pool of experts is small and we need to grow it quickly.”

Good news indeed.

Portia Gumede is creative producer on Inkaba. Her beat is narrative and character development which she does with her team. She agrees with Barker: “All good things do come to an end. [But] that’s exciting because it allows us to give our best in escalating the value in the production.”

It’s still early days. But Inkaba has the potential to shake up the soap landscape with some challenging content and the opportunities presented in the limited time frame. We know the series will end, most probably within a year. Let’s hope it delivers on these telenovela ideals.

Inkaba premiered on DStv's Mzansi Magic channel on Monday 19 March 2012, and is broadcast from Mondays to Thursdays at 20h30. There are 208 half-hour episodes in the series.

Anton Burggraaf is an executive producer at Ochre Moving Pictures and lover of all things good. He writes in his personal capacity.