It’s only six months old, but eNCA’s series Against All Odds has won an international award from the the Association for International Broadcasting (AIB) in in London. Hosted by Mpho Lakaje, the series tells the stories of extraordinary ‘ordinary’ South Africans who have beaten the odds in the toughest of circumstances.
“This award is important because it recognises the fact that we also tell stories of hope, inspiration and achievement,” says head of news, Patrick Conroy. “The story of this country, and indeed all of Africa, is also a story about overcoming the challenges we face and succeeding in what we do. This has now been acknowledged at an international level. eNCA is very proud of Mpho Lakaje and his team.”
Against All Odds were up against seven international broadcasters from around the globe and won the best short documentary category with the story Lucas Sithole, South Africa’s number one ranked disabled tennis player and ninth in the world.
The AIBs, now in their eighth year, celebrate creativity and reward success in factual programming. Judges said the Against All Odds winning entry was a “moving production, with some unique shooting methods”.
The thinking behind Against All Odds is to show a positive South Africa, one that has heroes and heroines who battle the odds to win. One that isn’t just about the daily headlines of systemic corruption, endemic poverty, crime and injustice but one that features ‘change agents’, people who take the country forward.
TheMediaOnline asked presenter Mpho Lakaje to tell us more about the show, and why it’s struck a nerve with South Africans.
How do you source your stories? Every week you come up with material that breaks one’s heart while uplifting our spirits and making us proud to be South African. How do you do it?
While we have a dedicated researcher, the show is a team effort. We are constantly looking for story ideas and always have our ears close to the ground. We focus on finding stories of remarkable and inspiring individuals. Now that the show is established, we are starting to receive emails and phone calls from South Africans who connect us with extraordinary people in their communities. After all, South Africa is a country of over 50 million citizens. It’s difficult to imagine running out of story ideas.
How do you deal with some of the stories you hear? How do you stay detached as a reporter, but engaged enough to tell a heartfelt story?
Thankfully, we studied journalism. We were trained and prepared to deal with such challenges. But I think it’s important for a reporter to make a conscious decision not to be emotionally attached while at the same time remaining sensitive. Also, we have to make the people we interview aware that we have thoroughly researched and made an effort to understand what they are going through. In that way, it helps an interviewee open up. This in turn, helps us to achieve our main objective of telling a heart-felt story.
Do you stay in touch with any of your subjects, keep abreast of their progress?
Yes we do. As we approach the festive season, you’ll be seeing follow up episodes of people we interviewed earlier in the year.
What makes you optimistic about South Africa?
In my eight years as a journalist, I’ve been fortunate to work for local and international media houses such as Talk Radio 702 and BBC World Service. I’ve travelled South Africa and the world extensively. While covering stories of poor service delivery and other social ills, I constantly came across extraordinary people who are committed to making South Africa a better place. It opened my eyes and made me realise that there’s a side of South Africa we don’t usually talk about.
What makes you pessimistic about South Africa?
It saddens me to see political figures leading our country astray. But it’s even more saddening to see South Africans allowing themselves to be deliberately misled. I strongly believe that many people understand what’s wrong with our country, but I think they allow fear to stop them from taking a brave step towards meaningful change.
What role does the storytelling you do play in our society?
The aim is to help viewers understand that they have what it takes to bring about the change they’d like to see in their lives and in their communities. Many of the people we interview rise against devastating odds to achieve what often seem like impossible goals. These are real-life people who live among us. If they can do it, then nothing stops us from achieving success. I believe such story-telling can lead to a shift in social thinking.
Do you think as a journalist that these kinds of stories aren’t told enough, that we’re overly engaged with our political story to the detriment of all else?
The trend in journalism is that you need to cover politics or social ills in order to be a successful or ‘heavyweight’ reporter. Many of us were taught at journalism school that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. So, a crime story stands a greater chance to lead the bulletin than a human interest story with a happy ending. As a result, I’ve seen how editors overlook exciting and uplifting stories with the potential to leave viewers inspired and asking for more.
I’ve also heard many journalists saying, telling political and crime stories shows that we are in touch with reality. My take is that, this doesn’t necessarily reflect South Africa’s reality. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s a one-sided view. South Africa is a progressive country and therefore we need to be brave enough to tell stories of progressive South Africans in a way that will keep viewers glued to their screens. We need to strike a balance. I think a story, like any other product, can sell if you approach it with the right attitude.
What do you get personally out of doing this kind of work?
The stories we do keep me inspired and passionate about life. Our interviewees teach me that limits exist only in our imagination. I’ve also learnt to find a way to listen to my inner voice, even when the world overwhelmingly disagrees with me. Most importantly, I’ve learnt to stay hungry while at the same time appreciating what I already have.
You must travel a lot doing this series. How is the show financed? Is it well supported by advertising? Have you a sponsor?
Debbie Meyer, Executive Producer for Current Affairs at eNCA says, “In TV terms, the show is still very young. It’s only been on the air for six months. It is fully financed by eNCA because we believe these stories about our country need to be told. We’d only welcome sponsorship if the brand associated with the show had the necessary credibility and honesty. If the brand does not authentically believe in stories of inspiration, hope and achievement we’d prefer not to have them associated with this very special programme.”
What made Lucas Sithole’s story the one to be entered into AIB?
Shortly after airing Lucas Sithole’s story, we received a number of encouraging emails and messages. Others wanted to meet Lucas. The feedback was overwhelming. It was quite obvious that South Africans were touched by Lucas’ story. Such feedback contributed to informing our decision to enter the story for the AIB’s.
Against All Odds airs on Fridays at 8:45PM on eNCA on DSTV channel 403, and in the United Kingdom on channel 518 on the Sky digital satellite platform.