Zanele Potelwa’s first screen audition didn’t even make it to the wooden mic segment. Today, she’s a celebrated broadcaster with a firm eye on advancement – and inclusivity.
“Lights, action, camera!” said the director, and I wish they hadn’t because I froze and almost started crying. When I finally mustered up some courage to say something in this nationwide presenter search, it wasn’t coherent. So much so that my audition didn’t even make it to their ‘wooden mic’ segment.
They probably felt sorry for me and that’s why my moment – ‘hoping the ground will swallow you up that very second’ – didn’t make it to air.
Those 60 seconds felt like five hundred, six thousand, seven billion and – listen properly – a whole lifetime. And this harsh beginning to my television career reminds me of the journeys I hear about all too often.
Many people tell of how difficult things are in the beginning and how you have to push through to see the fruits of this fight you put up, to hopefully realise your dreams of success.
Not all doom and gloom
My experience in the entertainment industry has been exactly that, and this is what I tell all young people I get a chance to speak to: I don’t know of any hard-working person, who has continuously made sacrifices, who did not eventually succeed.
However, I’ve also seen that women seem to have to work just a little bit harder to be heard or valued. I’ve seen how women have had to say no to certain jobs because certain people wanted inappropriate favours, or how women lost out on jobs because someone felt disrespected because their advances were turned down.
And this is not to say that it’s one-sided, but I hear so many more women with these kinds of stories and it can be disheartening.
That said, it is definitely not all doom and gloom.
Beaming with pride
We’re at such an exciting place for women in just about any industry; women are becoming CEOs, heading up some of the biggest projects in Africa and are being trusted in more professional fields and within major decision-making bodies.
I beam with pride every time I hear of a woman taking up a big slot at a radio station, or of our new acting group CEO at the SABC, as well as the head of content at the SABC both being women whom I admire and respect.
This is all so encouraging, but we still – always – need to address that which hinders the fostering of growth in this industry – such as the inappropriate favours mentioned above.
I remember once inquiring about an audition process and the man I asked casually told me that I would need to think about what favour I’m willing to do for him before he can consider me.
To circumvent abuse of power – especially over young girls – we should ensure better representation on decision-making teams, and for people to hold each other accountable.
As more women are being given opportunities and ‘seats at the table’, we also need to ensure that those same voices being given these positions aren’t being stifled and undermined – because then, what is the point?
Women talk about how they are surrounded by people who don’t value what they say. That is not my experience – but if it’s still happening to other women, it may as well be happening to me, because this is our industry.
So yes, there is much to fix, but I say all of this with great hope for the future – hope ignited by what we see now.
We see women in leading roles and executive producer seats; we see women securing multimillion-rand contracts and we see women feeling strong enough to stand up for what’s right. It’s incredible to see women blazing trails where there were none and showing us that what seemed impossible in fact is possible.
There is so much inspiration around us, especially in terms of women taking up space, and there’s always a woman waiting to encourage you and affirm your work.
In this entertainment industry, one of my biggest highlights is how we love to build each other and spur each other on. Help is always a DM or WhatsApp away and I can’t tell you how many women are always so ready to hear me out or give me advice.
A powerful tool
Mentorship is one of the most powerful tools in any industry and I think it’s happening in the most beautiful way in our media space. I can’t wait to be a mentor to many young girls one day, as many of the greats in our space are to me.
As the cliché with many things in South Africa goes: “We aren’t where we were, but we definitely still have a way to go.” There is headway being made, but as long as women who are speaking up for themselves are feeling like they need to still be heard, there is still work to be done.
At the end of the day, we are artists making masterpieces with big and little strokes across the canvas. We’re moving the paintbrush of our dreams in motions to yield the desired feeling of hopes turning into realities…
The first audition I attended for TV was an epic fail. However, my second attempt in front of the camera was met with a, “Zanele, I like you” from one of the judges, who is someone who still believes in me today and continues to encourage me. I went on to be the runner-up in that competition, finishing ahead of thousands.
The road may be difficult in the beginning – and yes, I speak of our individual journeys and the collaborative journey of wanting fairness for women in our industry alike.
But as long as we stay the course, as long as we operate with the end goal in mind, having intention in our actions, we’ll see the fruits of fighting for a desired dream: whether it is in front of the camera, on the mic or behind boardroom doors – and in conversations at the tables we all want to have a seat at…
Recently honoured as one of the M&G’s Top 200 young South Africans, at 29 Zanele Potelwa is one of the youngest award-winning broadcasters in South Africa. She is the presenter of 5 Lunch on 5FM. She is also a TV presenter on SABC 1 on Selimathunzi. She has founded The Zanele Potelwa Foundation, supporting young women in need.