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Millions watch HIV soap series in South Africa

 Street News Service 03 March 2019

Many soaps can boast a fanbase in South Africa. The genre is hugely popular within all parts of society. One series, however, doesn't bank on extramarital affairs and pub fights to get viewers hooked. It tries to get an important message across, without pointing the finger. (781 Words) - By Elles van Gelder


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A scene from Soul City. Photo: Soul City Institute

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A scene from Soul City. Photo: Soul City Institute

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A scene from Soul CIty. Photo: Soul City Institute

South African Portia just gave birth to her son Simphiwe. Shortly after, she dies. Both mother and child are HIV positive. Nurse Zanele wants to find out who the father is and discovers that Portia was raped by Duncan. He's Simphiwe's father. What now?

Just a storyline from one of the past seasons of 'Soul City.' Every week, around 4 million South Africans tune in to the series in expectation of what will happen next to its stars. The season that just finished was mainly focused on alcoholism and moderate drinking. Soul City wraps moral lessons into a thrilling story.

The soap is the brain child of a group of doctors in a clinic in Alexandra, a large township in the capital Johannesburg. They kept seeing patients with the same problems, Bongani Ndlovu explains in his Johannesburg office at the Soul City Institute. HIV/AIDS soars at a dazzling height at the top of the list of problems the doctors encounter. They want to prevent its spread, but aim for a more creative approach than billboards and flyers.

Their soap opera is one of the biggest successes in 'edutainment', which aims to educate the public in important issues through entertainment. Teaching without boring the audience. Edutainment can be used in comics, cartoons, computer games, movies, radio shows and television, and a growing number of organizations use the method to spread their message.

"Sometimes when we get the script back from the writers, there's too much information put in and not enough drama", Ndlovo reveals. "We are very aware that elements like intrigue and jealousy determine the success of the series. If we only point the finger, viewers will turn off their TV."

In South African television, 'Soul City' competes for the highest number of viewers with a slick drama series about a flashy advertising agency drenched in bling. Where the latter lets the audience dream of a life in luxury, Soul City adopts an image of a world closer and more recognizable to the average South African.

Over the past years, the soap's series have broached many big themes in life. One of them was having several sex partners and how fast the HIV virus spreads with unsafe sex. Researchers at the Soul City Institute demonstrated that having more than one bed partner is fairly common practice among South Africans. 36 percent of the men and 21 percent of the women in the country share their bed with more than one partner. In the 15 to 19 age group the numbers are even higher.

Currently, the script writers are working on a brand new season of Soul City. Themes that will cross the screen this time are the importance proper healthcare when pregnant and the reduction in risk of contracting HIV for men when they're circumcised.

South African actor David Dennis played the role of HIV-positive Sol a couple of seasons ago. His part provked controversy in a country where HIV/AIDS is still stigmatized.

"My character became the outcast of the community", 48 year old Dennis recollects. "Sol lost his job, his girlfriend and his family, all because he was HIV positive. This is what you see in real life too. By making Sol a part of the lives of millions of people, we create awareness in South Africa."

The institute also produces the children's programme Soulbuddyz to reach a younger audience. This series follows a group of children and the trouble that confronts them, like AIDS, sex and abuse.

Evaluations of Soul City display a huge effect of the series and other products of the institute, like publications in newspapers and radio shows. Research conducted in 2007 saw Soul City reaching 87 percent of all adults in South Africa. The institute made contact with over 25 million people. It meant an increase of 20 percent in people who are willing to take care of someone with HIV/AIDS. The number of individuals taking an HIV test climbed with 7 percent and roughly 8 percent more people use a condom.

Soul City fan Matsiko is looking forward to the new episodes. She lives in a township just outside Johannesburg.

"I watch the show together with my 7 year old daughter", the single mother tells. "She's never too young to watch. In the series we see the real life, our real life. Men who drink too much, who cheat on their wives or who beat their wives. The actors tell us how to deal with that, how we can control our own future and take our fate into our own hands."


Translated from Dutch to English by Demian van der Reijden

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