Gritty soap set against the backdrop of taxi industry mesmerises viewers


Wildly popular Mzansi Magic soap Isibaya, meaning “The Kraal’ – the name for an
enclosure where livestock is kept – originally began as a 208-episode drama
telenovela show, created by writers Angus Gibson, Catherine Stewart, Benedict
Carton, Theboho Mahlatsi and Desiree Maarkgraaf and produced by Bomb
Shelter. On 17 March the show started airing as a daily soap, focusing on the
bitter rivalry between the Zungus and the Ndlovus, two taxi-owning rival families
in the Thukela Valley in KwaZulu-Natal.

The inspiration for Isibaya arose in the late 1980s when Angus Gibson had
visited Msinga in the Thukela Valley to do interviews with hostel dwellers at their
homes. At the time he was captivated by both the landscape and the very
strong sense of Zulu tradition in the area and stayed in a polygamous
household while he was there.

Contemporary and traditional tensions

“In the contemporary world, among the black middle class, the huge difference
in the life experience of the “born frees’ and their parents, as well as the
tensions between traditional, rural values and contemporary urban values were
of real interest to us,’ says Gibson. “And Isibaya brought these elements

Gibson adds that enough research had been done to pitch the broad idea of a
polygamous taxi owner, living a schizophrenic urban / rural life, who is captured
by his rival and turned into an mkhovu (zombie) assassin.

“When the go-ahead was given by Mzansi, we spent six weeks doing more
research in the taxi world and the Thukela Valley and simultaneously fleshing
out and developing the characters and narratives,’ continues Gibson.

Real-world inspiration

With the main themes being “taxi violence, greed, conflict, peace and
reconciliation versus war and conflict, money and corruption’, the writers always
turn to the real world for inspiration. “We feel like we have only scraped the
surface of the taxi world,’ adds Gibson. “Also, the more time that we spend
filming in the Thukela Valley, the more narrative possibilities reveal
The daily process of writing a soap of this magnitude with complicated, multi-
faceted characters demand that the editing process is vital in maintaining
consistency as different writers sometimes have different takes on the

Gibson says: “We have a team of story-liners responding to research and sitting
together each week debating character and generating story. We are, at the
moment, refining our character bible with new ideas as the actors inhabit their
roles and give them their own idiosyncrasies.’

Isibaya demands of Gibson and his fellow producers to be hands-on. “We are
infamous for going back at the last moment and changing narratives that we
don’t feel are working. We have a crew, actors and editors that also feel very
invested in the show and express their opinions, and also have a vocal audience
that we listen to,’ he says.

The first year of Isibaya was planned from beginning to end in broad strokes but
now that it seems likely to go forward indefinitely. Gibson mentions that story
ideas are probably four to six months ahead of what is broadcast.
According to him, Isibaya’s audience has an appetite for high drama and action
on a regular basis. He adds: “Authenticity is also something that we take very

Maintaining the DNA of a strong cultural tradition

The head writer comments that going into the second year, it is difficult not to
feel the terrors of a novelist following up on a first success. “We have to find
fresh stories that deliver the same DNA as the original. Due to the first year’s
narrative we have had to lose characters and bring in new ones. We hope that
they will prove as popular.’

Gibson continues: “We will try to on the one hand to maintain the DNA of a
strong cultural tradition, a vigorous taxi world, upstairs / downstairs rural /
urban conflicts and comedies of manners, inter-generational conflict and a
supernatural element. On the other hand we want to challenge ourselves to
constantly explore new terrain.’

The writing team, who won in the Best Soap Writing Team category at the
recent South African Film and Television Awards, also comprises Mpumelelo Paul
Grootboom, Jacob Ntshangase, Gillian Breslin, Libby Dogherty, Harriet Perlman,
Paul S Rowlston and Christian Blomkamp.

Concludes Gibson: “We have great respect for the teams who have been
creating daily narratives for many years already so we feel humbled to be
recognised like this. We will be very pleased with ourselves if in 10 years’ time
we still win some awards.’

Isibaya screens on Msanzi Magic on DStv Channel 161 from Mondays to Fridays
at 20h30.


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