Popular TV show fined for domestic violence episode

There was no corrective to Isencane Lengane’s depiction of gender-based violence, says the Broadcasting Complaints Commission

By Dave Chambers

2 May 2023

The BCCSA has ruled that the Mojo Love the channel knowingly broadcast an incident of GBV and neglected to “proactively rectify the violent content”.

The producers of a reality show about a couple who married in their mid-teens have been fined R50,000 over a scene in which the husband smashed his wife’s phone and admitted to hitting her.

More than 50 viewers complained to the broadcasting watchdog about an episode in the fifth season of Isencane Lengane broadcast by the DStv channel Moja Love on 22 January.

During the episode Thando Dlamuka, 18, asks her husband Siyacela, 19, why he hit her the previous day. After an interview in which Siyacela admitted the assault and attempted to justify it, he was shown taking his wife’s cellphone and smashing it on the floor.

Viewers told the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) that the show promoted gender-based violence (GBV), but Moja Love argued it had “the responsibility to broadcast the episode with a hope of creating awareness and dialogue on GBV”.

Commissioner Boitumelo Tlhakung, in a ruling on 6 April, said it appeared from the complaints that there had been growing unhappiness about Siyacela’s behaviour on Isencane Lengane.

“The compelling difference this time around was the escalation from emotional abuse to actual physical violence, including the justification thereof, without any corrective from the broadcaster,” she said in her finding.

Tlhakung rejected Moja Love’s argument that a reprimand would be the correct sanction and fined it R50,000, half the maximum fine the watchdog can impose.

Isencane Lengane was launched in 2019 and followed the lives of Thando and Siyacela, high school sweethearts from Ulundi, KwaZulu-Natal, as they married at the ages of 15 and 16.

Season five began after the death of Siyacela’s father, and viewers were introduced to the couple’s newborn baby. But two weeks later the new father left for Durban to spend time with his lover, and Thando was unable to reach him.

“When I can’t reach Siyacela on the phone, I start thinking of wrong things but I don’t care any more. I am just waiting for him to tell me what his future plans are for us,” she said in an interview on the show.

It was another phone call which sparked the 22 January confrontation. “In the impugned episode, the couple are having a conversation where they are reliving the previous day’s events when [Siyacela] had assaulted his wife,” said Tlhakung.

“[Thando] is evidently unhappy because she was assaulted and tries to understand the husband’s reasons for the assault as she is still a bit confused. According to her, the fact that she received a phone call from her girlfriend, who had seemingly organised some men for her, angered her husband.

“She continues to complain about her husband’s reaction and further alleges that had it been a man who had called her, the assault would have probably been worse. The husband does not show any emotion while sitting next to her and listening to her telling the story.

“He later states his reasons why he assaulted her in a rather condescending tone. The interview switches back to the scene, where the husband takes his wife’s cellphone and smashes it on the floor.”

Moja Love argued that although the complaints referred to a specific episode, “the storyline is continuous and therefore the channel did broadcast corrective measures in the following episode where the couple attend a counselling session with a social worker”.

It said the production crew also stepped in and restrained Siyacela, and called the police. “Thando was advised to open a criminal case of assault against Siyacela, but she chose not to exercise this right and instead the channel moved Thando to a different location away from Siyacela.”

A “special broadcast” was aired a week later, featuring “a conversational dialogue between men [including Siyacela] regarding GBV, its causes and suggestions on how men can collaborate in an effort to end this epidemic”.

Some of the complainants said they were disappointed with Moja Love’s handling of the incident. “The channel failed to take viewers into its confidence about what further steps were taken,” said one. “This gives the impression that such content is an acceptable norm.”

Another said: “This episode … contributes to normalisation of a significant issue the country is fighting against. The production team is further complicit as there is no attempt to add a message before or after the episode that communicated their contempt against GBV.”

A third complaint said: “The channel should be made to account for such acts of violence that they allow … because what Siyacela is doing is a crime.”

Tlhakung agreed, saying that Siyacela’s comments in diary interviews that “his wife knows that he does not want her to have any friends … give the impression that he thinks violence against women can be justified”.

She added: “The fact that this impression is not immediately corrected or criticised by the broadcaster is problematic. Viewers are left with the impression that this is how people like themselves address problems in everyday life.

“The fact that it is a reality programme and, most importantly, that the violence was not immediately denounced and identified as criminal conduct, constitute a contravention of all the provisions of Clause 10.2 and 10.3 of the broadcasting code of conduct.” These clauses refer to content that incites imminent violence and advocates hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion.

Arguing for a reprimand rather than a fine, Moja Love said it laboured under the bona fide view that GBV had to be portrayed as it occurs in the real world … The channel was more of a messenger in this case than an instigator.”

But Tlhakung said the channel knowingly broadcast an incident of GBV and neglected to “proactively rectify the violent content”.

Bokani Moyo, head of Moja TV channels, said an appeal was planned against the BCCSA finding. “Isencane Lengane will continue as there are many storylines to be explored and our weekly ratings indicate that our audiences love the show,” she said.