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Old Rhodian brings Big Screen TV to township kids

Date Released: Mon, 30 July 2012 13:00 +0200

Radio’s funny sports guy, Graeme Joffe, gets serious about access to TV for South Africa’s after-school viewers

MANY will know him from 94.7 Highveld Stereo, when the radio station had a breakfast show rude enough to wake up to, and its joking jock, Jeremy Mansfield, would affably greet his jesting sports reporter: "Joffers, my boy!" Then, Graeme Joffe would tell a joke that, even at its lamest, would give you a bit of a lift as you trudged through the traffic.

Nowadays, Joffe gives a lift to many more, not on the airwaves — although you can still catch him on Radio Today, where his programme, Sports Fire, recently won a community radio award — but through taking TV to the masses.

The community project he started in 2007, Township TV, "has become a monster", a huge success with 2212m² screens broadcasting programmes and live sport to fans flocking to public parks across the country. But taking satellite TV from a township trickle to a torrent hasn’t been an all-out power-to-the-people experience. Although Township TV came at a time when "the Premier Soccer League deal went from the South African Broadcasting Corporation to SuperSport", and in effect handed televised soccer back to lower living standards measure fans who were in no position to pay for their viewing, the project has extracted its pound of flesh from Joffe.

"There have been many days I felt, why am I doing this? Hitting brick walls with municipalities. Hitting brick walls with sponsors. Hitting brick walls with power cuts. Why am I giving myself the heartache?" asks Joffe.

But on a bad day there’s still nothing that beats the feeling when he drives out to one of the parks and watches the kids watching Township TV. Joffe, though, is all for humour and humility as opposed to hot air and hubris.

"It really wasn’t my idea. Some time in 2006, a friend said, ‘Why don’t we put a big screen TV in Diepsloot so they can all watch the football?’ I thought it was a great idea but we wanted to take it a step further. We were thinking education and taking kids off the streets. So it went from just being about football to a whole, big thing."

Inevitably, it also meant big bucks. Another friend, steel merchant Warne Rippon, put up some start-up capital and Joffe invested "everything. I almost killed myself. Everything I owned went into the beginning."

Having scraped together about R2m, they finally got going "on a whim and a prayer".

To supplement expenses, they approached sponsors: "We got a kind of commitment from MTN, but no funding. The first four screens all went up from our back pockets, which is massive pressure. Salaries, security; it all adds up."

They initially envisioned 10 parks in Gauteng. "Thankfully, Joburg City Parks shared our vision, but MTN said what about the rest of the country? But we couldn’t afford a fifth park. We were on our last cents."

Eventually, MTN came on board: "Had they not, we would’ve gone under. I think there were a couple of outdoor companies that would’ve liked to see the end of us. They were kicking themselves that they hadn’t come up with the idea. There was a lot of animosity coming from the bigger guys. That’s what saddens me so about Primedia" — his employer at Highveld when Township TV was launched. "They were kind of laughing me off, saying ‘This guy is going to sink.’ And it almost happened."

Treading water, however, was worth it. "I’ll never forget when the first screen went up in Diepsloot. The day we put it up people came to us and said, ‘How stupid are you? That thing’s going to disappear tomorrow.’"

It echoed the incredulity of insurance companies. They said: "Are you crazy! We don’t know how we’re supposed to insure this."

The community, however, rallied around the new development at Sarafina Park.

"They immediately took ownership of it. The TV became theirs, so why would they allow someone to steal it? The day we finally launched, it was pouring with rain. Orlando Pirates were playing Ajax and they stood there with umbrellas and they couldn’t believe it. Best of all, it was free and in their own back yards."

The success of that rain-soaked soccer start to Township TV spread like wildfire through the township.

"A councillor introduced us to a young guy who was looking for a job, so we said, ‘Right, come with us.’ He became our first manager and was like the Pied Piper. Back then, we needed someone to switch the TV on at 2pm. When he left his shack the kids would run after him."

Lewis Mnjanja is still Township TV’s man on the ground, but has been promoted from controlling the first grassroots unit to managing the entire Soweto network.

"These guys are our eyes and ears. Zuks (his assistant, Zuko Kwatsha) and I can phone them any time. Job creation was a large part of our plans from the start," says Joffe. "We wanted to make a lasting difference. It would’ve broken my heart if we had to bring the screens down after the World Cup. How can you give something to these people and then take it away?"

In some cases, Township TV has brought the kind of change Joffe and his colleagues could never have imagined.

"In Diepsloot, there was no power in the park. Once a week, we used to go in there with jerry cans to run a generator. People would come up to me and say: ‘Mlungu (white guy), you don’t know what this means for us’."

Kwatsha says: "An old man came up to me once and said before the TV there was no light in the park, but now there’s always light and Sarafina Park’s much safer."

Power was a big problem at first, since solved with Township TV’s listing as a priority with Esk om. In the World Cup, an outage in Orlando West minutes before Bafana’s late-night clash with Uruguay almost caused a riot. "It put me over the edge," says Joffe. "I was getting calls throughout the afternoon, shouting and screaming. The guards were coming under pressure. They were being threatened. All people wanted to see was football."

The worst-case scenario played out in Alexandra, when armed robbers took a TV. "They held up a guard with AK-47s. It was stressful. We just couldn’t deal with it any more."

It was the only time Joffe’s worst nightmare came true — shutting a park down. Elsewhere, Township TV is going strong, pulling huge crowds to fan parks in areas such as Mqolombe Park in Uitenhage, Umkhanyakude in Richards Bay, and most metropolitan areas.

"It has been amazing," says Joffe. But it’s time to get out. I’m tired, Zuks is tired; we just don’t have the power to take it any further. We need someone with connections to take this to the next level. At this stage, the government only gets involved at election time. Then African National Congress guys come around and tell people, ‘See what we’ve done for you.’"

Township TV, contends Joffe, "has got so much more potential. We took on a major challenge but it’s become too big for little us."

Source: Business Day

By Eugene Goddard

Caption: AMAZING: Graeme Joffe’s Township TV has made a huge difference in the lives of township dwellers, attracting huge crowds of young and old people.