“By discussing African history, perhaps more specifically the influence Darwin’s theory had on the apartheid regime, maybe we as South Africans can better understand and address the systems governing our country today.”
These were the words of Wendy Dhlamini, a character on Netflix’s new series Blood and Water. Her peers rolled their eyes in annoyance at her educated rant.
As frustrating (and downright irritating at times) as Wendy’s character proved to be throughout the show, this moment made my jaw drop.
South African thoughts, issues, cultures, and discourses were being displayed to an international audience… finally!
Blood and Water was only released just over a week ago, but the South African show has quickly gained international attention. It has climbed to Netflix’s Top 10 chart across many countries, including the US, the UK, and France, and has received great reviews.
We are introduced to the show’s main character Puleng Khumalo and her family as they are celebrating the seventeenth birthday of her missing sister, Phumele, who was kidnapped from the hospital soon after her birth.
The narrative may seem too intense for a teen mystery show, however, we South Africans are sadly no stranger to such occurrences of kidnapping.
It is a South African show about South African characters living their South African lives in South Africa.
A recent famous case was that of Zephany Nurse, who was abducted from the hospital she was born in at two days old. 17 years later, she was identified as the missing baby when her biological sister started attending the same school as she and people took notice of their uncanny resemblance.
Such is the case with Blood and Water.
Puleng attends a party where she meets Fikile Bhele, a teenage swimming star athlete who looks eerily like her and even shares a birthday with her missing sister. From there, the show sets out into a secret investigation by Puleng into Fikile’s true identity in order to heal her family from the trauma of losing a child and to exonerate her father; who was accused of selling Phumele into a human trafficking scheme.
The show has a meaningful and brilliantly written main plot.
But, unlike so many other shows under the genre of ‘teen drama’, Blood and Water tackles many hard-hitting, real-life issues such as human trafficking, inappropriate teacher-student sexual relationships, decolonization, the wealth gap and much more.
‘Blood and Water’ tackles many hard-hitting, real-life issues.
Through it all, the show remains distinctly South African, calling all the aforementioned issues into question in a South African context.
Take, for example, Fikile’s romantic relationship with her married swimming coach. In the same way, the main plot may have been inspired by Nurse’s real-life story, this subplot could have taken inspiration from the recent national scandal of a female teacher engaging in sexual activities with her male students at an elite school in Cape Town.
Another South African trope touched on in the show is the school system’s obsession with athleticism and how it is often prioritized over academics.
In the show, Fikile arrives late to class with the excuse of practice running late, and she and Chris, a fellow swimmer, get an extension on a class essay as it is the middle of a busy swimming season. As small of a discussion this may seem, fellow South Africans probably have vivid flashbacks to their schooling days where such a mindset was rampant.
Wendy justifiably points out that this is unfair, upon which the white female teacher responds, “It is what it is, Miss Shlamini.”
“It’s Dhlamini”, Wendy mumbles bringing us to another experience widespread in South Africa – the mispronunciation of one’s name (reminder: it is pronounced ‘Car-Jill’).
It may seem like on the sidelines of the movement, but supporting work by Black creators serves to amplify #BlackLivesMatter.
It may seem like on the sidelines of the movement, but supporting work by Black creators serves to amplify #BlackLivesMatter. Blood and Water is Netflix’s second African original series and has a majority Black cast. It is written and directed by award-winning South African filmmaker Nosipho Dumisa, a Black woman.
The show captures Cape Town in all its splendor, using their high budget to allow the world to see an Africa that might be a shock to some in the West, who are accustomed to very unflattering and limited depictions of the continent and its people. All of these factors work well together to present Blood and Water as what is possible if support was given to talented Black artists.
From the show’s largely South African soundtrack to its transition landscape shots of the beautiful ‘Mother City’, to even its rare bit of relatable humor in getting hung up on by home affairs, Blood and Water‘s magic lies in its commitment to its South African roots.
This is alluring: it is a South African show about South African characters living their South African lives in South Africa.
I can only hope that they remain faithful to such a unique approach rather than assimilate to attract a larger foreign audience.
After all, South African teens deserve on-screen representation as well.
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