Would a Mandela reality show be a mistake?

OPINION - The show teeters more on exploitation of the Mandela name than a sincere attempt to show three South African women navigating life in a contemporary African landscape...

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Initial reports of a developing reality show featuring three granddaughters of Nelson Mandela appeared promising. As more information is being revealed, however, the show teeters more on exploitation of the Mandela name than a sincere attempt to show three South African women navigating life in a contemporary African landscape.

Sisters Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway, age 34, and Swati Dlamini, age 32, are the children of Mandela’s daughter Zenani, born to Winnie Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his second and most famous wife. According to the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard’s website, their cousin Dorothy Adjoa Amuah, age 27, is the “step-daughter of Makaziwe Mandela, one of Mandela’s children with his first wife Evelyn.” All three of the granddaughters were raised in the United States, in Boston, but the proposed reality show will be filmed in South Africa.

Reportedly, the show came about when Dlamini-Manaway arranged to meet cosmetic surgeon Dr. Robert Rey, best known for his E! reality show Dr. 90210, which ran from 2004 to 2008, when he visited South Africa. That meeting led to the three women connecting with Rick Leed, who served as the executive producer of Rey’s show as well as the films Where the Heart Is and Company Man, both released in 2000, and is spearheading their show which Swati Dlamini has stated “will be about our lives as young, black women.”

Attempting to disregard their famous lineage, Dlamini also stated that “We’re not wearing ‘I’m a Mandela T-shirts” while Amuah has said “This is by no means a Kardashian show.” But, of course, both statements are not completely true.

There would be no interest in the show if the three women were not linked to Nelson Mandela. While there is no sex tape involved as in the case of Kim Kardashian, the three women are generating interest due to their personal connections.

In addition, the eldest Dlamini-Manaway wants to start a clothing line and Amuah, who has a MBA, works in the luxury brands market so there’s plenty of potential glitz and glamour. On top of that, the Dlamini’s mother married into the royal family of Swaziland and their brother Prince Cedza Dlamini, who is more well-known globally for his youth activism, is eligible to inherit the crown.

Because reality television has produced very few thought-provoking, great television moments, especially when it comes to black women, there are obvious concerns. We certainly can’t point to Basketball Wives or The Real Housewives of Atlanta for any hope. Mandela is a modern-day hero and it’s hard to imagine a reality show that will live up to his legacy. After all, the very nature of the genre is to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

So, though Dlamini-Manaway is a married mother of two children, ages 10 and 2, who is expecting a third in January and her sister wants to start a foundation focused on housing, education and health and their cousin reportedly also has a law degree, this format hasn’t typically highlighted such positives.

In a taped interview, all the women did their best to accentuate the positives. Amuah was especially undaunted. “We don’t have to go to the nearest club or, like, you know, like be taking off our clothes [sic]. That’s what we need to change in society,” she said. “We can have a reality show that is informative and entertaining.”

Perhaps it can be done. But, again, the problem is that has rarely happened. Like it or not, drama is a ratings generator. And it’s doubtful this can be a win-win situation. With a grandfather like Nelson Mandela and a brother and cousin like Prince Cedza Dlamini, custom dictates that these women conduct themselves in a certain manner. If they give in to the format with its penchant for confrontation, how will that reflect on their families? Will they be sorry they even did the show in the first place?

Initially, people may tune in just out of curiosity. What is the life of relatives of Nelson Mandela like in South Africa? Are doors held open? Do people cozy up to them to gain favor? Are they financially well-off simply because they are associated? Do they stay in the mall? Or are they pressured to fill the huge shoes their grandfather has worn?

It also might be interesting to see how women raised in the United States navigate South Africa. Are they too American? Or do they fit in because Africa, as a continent, is changing dramatically. After all, anyone who visits the continent can’t help but notice its growth. Besides, South Africa, which is perhaps one of the most European countries on the continent, is most recognizable to Americans and Europeans in its landscape and culture.

Questions such as these may get people to tune in initially but what will keep them there? Truthfully, if the lives of these three women were that interesting to begin with, wouldn’t they be slightly more well-known? Judging from responses on message boards from African websites, those in South Africa and other parts of the continent are generally unaware of them. Let’s just hope their intentions are indeed sincere.

Right now, however, that seems doubtful. Announcing a reality series before it even has a network or an air date isn’t a great vote of confidence. Unfortunately, that is the stuff that makes reality shows churn. It is this quest for relevance that makes people do the crazy things that make other people tune in. And that might be great for ratings but that doesn’t bode well for the Mandela legacy, even if it’s just his granddaughters.