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Girls & Women

5 of the Most Inspiring Female Characters From South Africa’s Favourite TV Shows

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Equality is the pillar of democracy. This includes ensuring equal opportunities for both men and women in all aspects of life — and representation in popular culture is a vital tool in this fight. You can empower girls and women around the world by taking action here to support the UN’s Global Goal 5 for gender equality

Representation in media is a key component of empowering marginalised members of society.

“Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence,” researchers George Gerbner and Larry Gross said in a report called Living With Television.

Sociologists have also warned against what's known as symbolic annihilation — the erasure of marginalised groups from mainstream media.

They explain that on-screen representation matters because when people do not see themselves reflected in the media they consume, they internalise the message that they are unimportant.

When it comes to women’s representation in media, it’s not just important for there to be a large presence of women in television shows — it is also important that these characters represent women fairly. 

Storylines that perpetuate ideas of women being inferior to men, and that mostly give leading roles to men, are harmful to the self image of girls and women.

Female character roles in South Africa often conform to oppressive stereotypes of women, with their storylines primarily revolving around male characters, according to a report from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s centre for communication.

But some TV shows are changing the game by working to include examples of empowered female characters. 

We stan these women on five of South Africa’s popular series and soapies.

1. Lufuno Mulaudzi

From a new show called The Republic, Lufuno Mulaudzi is South Africa’s first democratically-elected female president.  

Her reign comes after President Hendrik Mbuli is fired for corruption and looting of state funds, and she takes up the responsibility of fighting corruption in her country.

Mulaudzi’s story takes us through the highs and lows of being a woman in power,  including her kidnapping, which leads to South Africa's first coup. Regardless of challenges faced, she will stop at nothing to fulfill her promise to protect her people.

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Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has had five presidents — none of whom have been women.

Although Mulaudzi’s story doesn't speak to our reality, the character, played by the legendary actress Florence Masebe, validates the dreams of girls who one day want to become president.

2. Mkabayi Zungu

Known for her bravery, Mkabayi Zungu leads a family of taxi owners on Isibaya.

The “tough talking” matriarch is dismantling gender roles, as she tackles the daily operations of the business.

Similar to many African traditions, Zulu women are expected to have subordinate roles. 

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While it is uncommon for women to have a seat at the table, Mkabayi isn't shy about making her presence felt. As well as heading lobola negotiations, she is involved in all the decision making processes, often overpowering the men.

The character, played by Thembi Nyandeni, is important in highlighting women’s diversity and showing that women don't only belong in the kitchen.


3. Wandile Radebe

Fans of the iconic soapie Generations the Legacy were introduced to Wandile Radebe in 2016.

Wandile was the son of an elite businessman, but later transitioned to being a woman.

When Wandile came out to her loved ones about her true identity, she was ostracised by her family and forced to seek shelter with friends.

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People who are transgender often can't afford the luxury of safety and access as they still face severe discrimination, stigma, and systemic inequality, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Although the actress herself, Chi Mhende, is not transgender, the character went where many have been shy to go. It highlighted the struggles of gender identity, showing people what it can mean to be trans.


4. Mapitsi Magongwa

Mapitsi is from a small town called Turfloop, in the Limpopo province on Skeem Saam.

The bright girl fell pregnant while she was in high school and this caused a disturbance in her studies. However, she didn't let this get in the way of achieving her dreams.

Teenage pregnancy is a major challenge faced by school girls in South Africa, and
Statistics South Africa has found that almost 123,000 children born in 2017 were the children of teenage mothers.

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While being a teen mother presents massive obstacles in a girl accessing education, in her storyline Mapitsi is currently pursuing a degree in Journalism at the University of Limpopo.

The storyline, told through young actress Mogau Motlatswi, is a way of restoring hope and inspiring teen mothers who are often stigmatised in South Africa.


5.Tyson

From the popular seriesLockdown, Tyson is a lesbian who's part of a tight unit of women in prison.

Affectionately known as the “the uncle”, she is fierce and overprotective of her crew. 

During a shared cleaning duty, she is raped by a male prisoner and this violating incident stripped her of the identity she had built in prison.

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For many women, being in prison comes with a lot of challenges like being ostracised in society, forcing them to rather stay behind bars even after the end of their sentence. 

In an interview with women inmates, Hard Times found that 67% had experienced some form of domestic violence and/or rape in their adult lives. 

Actress Lorcia Cooper-Khumalo uses this character to represent the 2.6% of women in the South African prison system, showing the resilience of women no matter what life throws at them.