The Rise of Minstrel Shows in South African Television

American minstrel theatre died in the early 20th century but its legacy lives on in 21st century South African television ads.

The theatrical form was founded on the enactment of racial stereotypes, branded by rainbow coloured costumes, blackened faces, thick lips and bad jokes.

Although the form gradually disappeared from professional theatres its influence has endured in South African radio and television. It is one thing for international brands to localise content when entering into a new market but some have exaggerated cultural and linguistic factors to please popular culture.

This has sparked several comments from influencers like Anele Mdoda who tweeted “Please can we stop making black people dance in ads. We also want to be portrayed as witty and stuff” and in an earlier online conversation, radio personality and author, Redi Tlhabi tweeted “Ag man. This thing of depicting black people dancing in every advert on SABC 1, haai man”.

Thanks to Hello Peter, Twitter and Facebook, consumers are aware of false promises and have platforms to criticise brands that are disingenuous. Smoking does kill. Chakalaka and beetroot stains are a nightmare to remove. Fizzy drinks are not healthy and South African cellphone call rates are expensive for the average consumer. But most importantly, dancing and singing does not resolve the issues above.

What is exciting is that every brand has a story to tell, one that is beyond commercial aspirations. There are great opportunities to tell these stories without defaulting to traditional advertising narratives. When I think of brands like FNB, Coke and Dove, my perception is that they are “transparent”, “progressive”, or “helpful”.

Between a brand that says they are amazing through song and dance and one that is amazing- which do you pick?

Written by Phakamani Lisa