The Significance of South Africa’s First Prominent Lesbian TV Character

The recent introduction of South Africa’s first prominent lesbian TV character is more than just a milestone for lesbian visibility on TV in South Africa — it’s a step towards stemming the rising tide of violence against lesbians in South Africa.

Rhythm City, a popular daily drama (or “soapie”) that premiered on in 2007, is set in Johannesburg and focuses on the romantic entanglements and interpersonal power struggles of those who work in the South African music industry. Storylines revolve around record companies, promoters, producers, DJs and the stars, as well as wannabe stars, has-beens and everyone’s families and lovers.

Openly gay Wandi (Mbali Ntuli) is the new host of a local morning TV show. While she is just one of several characters on the show, and not without her flaws, Wandi is an identifiable, multi-dimensional, and sympathetic character. In other words: she’s not just another lesbian villain.

Mbali Ntuli as Wandi

Wandi and Lu (KB Motsilanyane) — who became friends after Wandi interviewed Lu for her show — had been planning to move in together (as friends) after Wandi convinced Lu to leave her boyfriend Miles. But a rift developed between them last week when Lu asked Wandi, “have you lived with women before” and Wandi answered “Lu, did you not know I was a lesbian?” (Apparently, Lu did not.)

Lu (right) discovers Wandi’s gay

Lu grappled with her anti-gay prejudice and decided to overcome it, but made it clear to Wandi, “we are not in a relationship.” When Wandi replied, “but we are,” the two were at a stalemate.

This causes a strain in their relationship for awhile, but spoilers say the two will eventually make up (go here for future episode summaries), and there are even hints that their friendship may even take a romantic turn — although I think that’s unlikely, given current attitudes towards homosexuality in South Africa, and the fact that Wandi is one of the first lesbians on South African television.