20/12/2016 15:16 SAST | Updated 21/12/2016 16:42 SAST

'Is'thunzi' Shows The Reality Of Being Trans In The Townships

Television is increasingly becoming where the majority of our people are getting educated about LGBTI rights and issues.

Instagram/Mzansi Magic

What are you?

I'm Anele

I'm not gay

I am a man; I just have the body of a woman

When you tune into shows like "Is'thunzi", you can sort of guess the storylines that will come from a show like that. Sixty percent of the storyline has to involve sexual assault because you cannot have a show on life in a country with very high numbers of reported rape, and not address the issue. Set in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal, you can almost foresee the various social issues the show seeks to tackle. It is written in the imaginary - Script Writing for Dummies: to build a successful show in South Africa you need rape, HIV/AIDS, witchcraft and teen mom storylines. These storylines are easy to foresee, not only because they've been done before but also because they are a true reflection of South African life for a lot of people.

I watch a lot of TV so there aren't too many story arcs that shock me. South Africa had its first televised gay wedding on "Isidingo" in 2006. After that "Generations" had Senzo and Jason as regulars on the show. Now the popular soapie is taking us through Wandi's transition. So queer TV characters are not new to South Africa.

From the moment I saw Anele (Tkay Kaula), I knew that something was up. I was confused: What were the writers and casting directors doing with this character? Was this a gay man? Was this a lesbian woman? Or was this just a woman playing a man and there's really nothing more to it? That happens, right? Think John Travolta in "Hairspray!" That's how far my mind went. I was so sure that a show like "Is'thunzi" wouldn't go in that direction that I thought of John Travolta in "Hairspray".

While the writers on "It's Complicated" were writing a guide on how to be the worst plagiarisers in the world, the writers of "Is'thunzi" were walking uncharted territory. In last week's episode, Londi (Zikhona Bali) decided to skip out on the matric dance a little early to go have an after party of her own. I reckon that she was over her baby daddy's awful behaviour and she decided that she liked her boss enough to go the distance with him. They start making out, they go into his room and when she tries to take his pants off, he refuses. He eventually reveals to her that he has the anatomy of a woman.

What stood out for me is that none of the characters on the show noticed that there was something different about Anele. When he came out to her, my first thought was "How is this news to her? How did she not notice anything at all?" It was then that I realised that some people are genuinely ignorant. They've never heard of Caitlyn Jenner, or seen "Dallas Buyers Club" or read a Huffington Post op-ed on living trans. For some people, the word transgender is foreign. They've never heard of transgender people let alone met a transgender person.

South African TV has always played a part in telling the South African story and in exposing people to the real issues faced by South Africans. Think of the roles played by "Soul City", "Home Affairs" and "Soul Buddyz" in schooling us on social issues. But this is an issue that world media has shied away from. It's easy to alienate conservative viewers when you write on an area of life that people aren't ready to hear about. This is why American television has made a considerable effort in avoiding the topic. There is a reason why shows like "Transparent" are on Amazon and not on ABC, CBS or FOX. So when I eventually figured out where Amanda Lane and her writers on "Is'thunzi" were taking Anele's character, I almost couldn't believe it.

"Is'thunzi" has taken a show about young people living in rural South Africa and used it to force feed people stories that they are not ready to hear but desperately need to hear. South Africa is constitutionally progressive. Our Bill of Rights is praised by the world and serves as the go-to in the human rights sector. But our society is behind our Constitution. We are celebrating 20 years of the South African Constitution but our mindsets are still trailing far behind. Being a sexual minority in South Africa is still a hardship, even if you are rich and living in Sandton but being a sexual minority in the rural area? Being transgender in the rural area is almost impossible.

Telling these stories through TV serves as a means of informing and educating people. It shows us what we don't want to hear through people that are just like us, through people that look like and could easily be our brothers or sisters. Watching shows like "I am Cait" and trying to learn from that story doesn't cut it. But hearing these stories through a young, black South African? That brings it closer to home; it forces people to really see the story through a lens that is familiar to them, whether it's rich kid Wandi from London or Anele from rural Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Even though the South African Constitution provides for an equality clause that recognises the right to be free from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, transgender people continue to be one of the most marginalised groups in South Africa.

In April 2016, the Legal Resources Centre, Iranti-Org and Gender Dynamix submitted a shadow report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights that outlines the need for the government to distinguish between human rights related to (1) gender identity and gender expression, and (2) body diversity, particularly intersex variations and other non-binary bodies, and that the state needs to offer greater recognition and protection of these right. The report also outlined how the discrimination faced by transgender people in South Africa intersects with race, class, geographic location, disability, language, culture, sexual orientation etc. As a result, they also face greater risks of poverty, homelessness, physical and sexual violence and rejection by families and communities.

In June 2016, South Africa further disappointed people by choosing to abstain on a vote at the United Nations Human Rights Council that would support the establishment of a watchdog to monitor and report on violence and discrimination world-wide against person based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. (South Africa has since voted to keep the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. - blogs editor)

It is clear that South Africa is making a U-turn on it position. South Africa has gone from a pioneer and champion of the rights of sexual minorities to a country that sits by and leaves the LGBT community to fend for itself. This is why the work of shows like "Is'thunzi" is so essential and why its importance needs to be discussed.

I'm not sure what's next for Anele but I think that the show should get the props it deserves. So, props!

(In last night's episode, Londi left her husband to be with Anele. The two have decided to raise her child as their own and Anele will be a father to the infant. - blogs editor)