Tuesday, February 17, 2015

AN APPRECIATION: Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu - From construction company receptionist to talker and what her TV triumph really means to us.

She's ending it. But please - please - don't think of Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu ending the long-running SABC3 weekday talk show Three Talk with Noeleen as a sad story, or a TV story, or a fluff, superficial celebrity story.

With Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu who announced yesterday live on South African TV's longest-running and only hour long local, daily talk show that she's ending it after 12 years on 20 April, you can think of it as a triumph. For all of us.

Think of it as a great South African story. A great success story. A great Eastern Cape success story. A great example for women, for black women, for working moms; for local television.

Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu is an example for all of us in South Africa that even if you're a receptionist at a construction company answering phones in one of the poorest provinces in the country, that you can go forward in life, grow; be successful and end up on television as a talk show host.

Here's what they won't say and what we don't actually realise: That currently Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu is in terms of TV lifespan the longest serving, longest uninterrupted female presenter of the same show on South African television.

Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu's 12 years on South African television as the face of 3Talk is only surpassed in years by Derek Watts on M-Net's Carte Blanche (who doesn't and never carried the whole hour long show on his own, talking for 42 minutes) and in hours by Leanne Manas of SABC2's Morning Live who's done it for 10 years but on a show that's 2 hours long daily (although the bulk of that period was with a co-host, Vuyo Mbuli).

Take that Felicia, Dali, Masechaba, Penny and the string of South Africans who've had TV talkers: Nobody has talked more in sheer thousands of hours logged minutes by minute over years than Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu.

The celebu-buzz bubbled up when word spread last year that e.tv and eKasi+'s Khanyi Mbau (no shade; I like her and she does great work as a TV talker) surpassed Noeleen to become the most watched South African TV talk show. Uhm, no.

You can't compare a one day or two days a week talk show's ratings with one that's on five days a week. Which is better: The soccer player who consistently scores one goal every Sunday in one match or the one who consistently scores one goal daily five days a week in a match per day?

Quintuple Three Talk with Noeleen's audience (a dedicated audience who got the chance to call in and engage with the show in what is largely a live show - two major differentiators stretching over years from any of the pre-recorded others) and you discover the real numbers and influence of not only what Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu did, but why its actually the real undisputed most watched local TV talk show on South African television.

The legacy of 3Talk and Noeleen Maholwana-Sangu will not be that it was necessarily a great show. Or that it was a bad show. It was a dynamic talk show with and about people.

Just ike people, Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu and her guests and her production crew at Urban Brew had good days and bad days, just like every one of us. It's life and the show mirrored life, because in real life none of us are Oprah.

The legacy of Three Talk with Noeleen lies in its existence. That it existed for 12 years. That it endured with Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu for 12 years, come rain or shine; that is survived on the public broadcaster - notorious as a place where shows disappear without word or trace and where shows come and go according to the often insane and uniformed vagaries and decisions of inept SABC executives.

Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu I met for the first time more than a decade ago at a SABC3 quarterly press preview (then still done by the dear SABC3 publicist Michael van Dyk and Papa Mbongo) shortly after she took over 3 Talk.

What happened was that SABC3 lost The Oprah Winfrey Show to e.tv. SABC3 - with Hannelie Bekker then as programming manager (now back in SA as managing director for FOX International Channels Africa) - decided to rather start its own local TV talk show.

Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu was roped in quickly for the talk show (which originally started out as a live broadcast in the 18:00 timeslot and has shifted timeslot many, many times since) without a lot of time to prepare.

You might not know it because you're too young, or you might have forgotten: SABC3 actually launched 3 Talk with Bertha Charuma the "Boogie Babe" who was unceremoniously dumped just nine weeks later when things just didn't work out. Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu was the step-in quickly replacement.

And she never looked back.

If there's a "South African dream" in the way that American's believe in the "American dream", then Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu is surely on the list of South Africans who exemplify it for us.

The woman from Umtata who eventually rose to become news editor at Talk Radio 702 and had her own show, "Noleen at 9", was at the time that 702 offered her her first three month contract, only the second black woman on-air there after Zandile Nzalo.

In the years since she became a TV personality, I've interviewed Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu a few times while working at different newspapers and publications and I've always got the sense that she was in it not for the fame, adulation and "TV" but for the long haul and to try and make a difference.

As a TV critic and a journalist covering the TV industry I was never on Three Talk with Noeleen (although I did appear once in a pre-recorded clip) but I've been on the set for a set visit a few years back.

When I look for great television, I also look behind it - at the people who make it. During the set visit of Three Talk with Noeleen I saw the same dedicated, very in-tune, clever and committed producers I've met a few years earlier. Passionate people who really believe in Three Talk and what it represents, and really like and believe in Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu.

Once after a press conference I made a bee-line for Noeleen as the rest ran for the food to ask her about something she said. "You listen way too closely,"she said as she laughed at me.

If there's a lesson for South Africans from Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu's TV tenure its how to keep smiling, laughing, and doing what you're doing. To carry on, regardless of what people and bullies say.

Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu as TV talk show host was just like us. And for a lot of people that just wasn't enough (although ironically the perfect TV talk show host is supposed to be the "everyman" or "everywoman").

For a lot of TV critics and viewers over the years Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu wasn't big enough (like Oprah!), or thin enough (like Tyra!), or informed enough (how dare she bring back Sharon Glass and know-it-all Prof. Harry Seftel to talk about bladder infection and Dr. D again and again and again?)

For all the badness of, and on, the SABC, Three Talk with Noeleen was actually part of the goodness - a solid public broadcasting television programme, on free-to-air public television, aimed at people who didn't know and wanted to know more; a TV vehicle that was able to be a lot of things to a lot of people.

Three Talk with Noeleen was for petrol attendants and private bankers alike. For stay-at-home moms who wanted some entertainment and someone to relate to. A place to make a connection.

It was for a scared pregnant 16-year old too scared to go to a doctor to anonymously call on a Medical Monday to ask a question and get help.

It was a place in daytime where one day Celine Dion would do an interview, and the next you could see open heart surgery be shown live as a South African TV first.

It was on Three Talk where Kenny Kunene showed up with five girlfriends, and where Noeleen could read embarrassing personal problems - with unexpected hilarity - like a reader's email asking for medical advice about her vagina which is "sounding like it's having a conversation" every time she's intimate with her husband.

And who can ever forget one whole episode just about poo? Oh Noeleen. I think we will miss you.

Whether real or perceived - and whether viewers ever even realised it or not - Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu and Three Talk with Noeleen on SABC3 was part of what democracy and the media and freedom of the press and public broadcasting television at its core all really is about and should be about: the exercising of the freedom to talk about anything.

Panned or adored or indifferent, you could watch an episode of Three Talk with Noeleen and easily forget that you're watching it in Africa - a local TV talk show in South Africa addressing issues and handling topics so matter-of-factly which would never ever be done or said elsewhere in Africa, sometimes with guests who would never be given even a second of airtime anywhere else on television on the continent.

I've watched Three Talk with Noeleen over the years as young people with faltering voices call in who are abused. As women call in who are crying. As depressed, suicidal, lonely and distraught callers reach out one last time and reached out to Noeleen - usually keeping her composure but herself sometimes being visibly overcome by emotion. Heartbreaking stuff.

A lot of those TV moments over the years changed me and perhaps changed South Africa.

In 2014, on one afternoon, without even knowing the topic, I tuned in to Three Talk with Noeleen.

Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu spoke with rape survivors. Not rape victims, rape survivors.

Ordinary South African women from all walks of life spoke - as if its the most natural thing in the world and with brutal honesty - about how they were raped, how the South African Police and several institutions and service failed them, how they literally (on foot and by car) and through court pursued the rapists themselves and got them sentenced and locked up behind bars.

It wasn't a special day. It was just another day of Three Talk with Noeleen.

It was also a bold and empowering hour of the best of what public access local television is capable of being and doing - not just for the women who spoke, but for all South Africa women, and in the end, all South Africans.

The episode was informative and powerful, giving voice to the voiceless and showing women on public television that there's other women who are not ashamed to show their faces and who simply won't stand for heinous atrocities and violent sexual crime.

Ask yourself: On what other TV channel anywhere else in Africa, on what possible local TV talk show, would you ever see this? None.

Three Talk with Noeleen broadened the perspective and TV limits of what's "talkable" - imperceptible, but definite. Fame is a strange thing and used well, it can make a real difference.

Kilimanjaro was something Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu, together with her producers, wanted to climb, but never got to. Instead the mountain they climbed and conquered was television.

Once I was in a minibus on a media day with Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu.

Moronic traffic police pulled us over, wrongly thinking we're a minibus taxi, unable to understand and comprehend it's a rental vehicle from Avis or somewhere. They were ready to pounce with a fine for transporting passengers without a permit. I sat right at the very back, quietly listening and observing.

Eventually, after about 10 minutes of the driver and producers arguing and trying to explain that it's not a taxi, Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu opened her side window, wanting to start to explain what the situation is herself.

Suddenly it dawned on the traffic cop woman who she was talking to. Her rigid, borderline-rude and arrogant attitude instantly changed and melted away and she started to laugh as she pointed. "Hi! It is Noeleen! But I know you!"

"We're doing the show. The people are for the TV. These people are not paying sisi!" said Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu in mock admonishment but humour in her voice. Off we went on our journey.

Thank you Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu. Thank you for the ride.