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Garth Japhet is a TV doctor
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"Whenever you are attempting to tell a story and it is not your own, you’ve got to work closely with the people whose context it is."
1 October 2012

Garth Japhet is a TV doctor

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Chris Saunders

Berry Liberman on Garth Japhet

Imagine if the TV shows we all watch were lovingly crafted to educate, inspire and heal. If controversial public debate was played out in storylines, with familiar characters, who could help us become better informed and make better choices for our wellbeing. Storytelling used to be like that. Communities would sit around the campfire, listening to ancient fables that helped create better societies. For Garth Japhet, a disillusioned young physician sitting in the gutter in Soweto, storytelling would prove to be the healing force he was looking for.

A native of South Africa, Garth was raised to believe in social justice, and could never get over his idealism; a desire to really make a difference. So he became a doctor. It’s a healing profession. It’s romantic. There’s glamour involved. He could rescue people! The devastating reality of medicine for Garth was that it involved blood, which makes him faint, and, there wasn’t much healing involved after all. As a young physician working in impoverished townships like Soweto in the 1980s, Garth rapidly felt his passion and humanity being stripped away. The real problems he saw were systemic, deep and way beyond the wilting powers of his stethoscope.

But what could he do? One drunken night of self-pity, Garth had an idea. He would tell the real stories of the people who came into his clinic. Simple. What began as a regular column in the local paper, soon became Soul City, a radio and television drama. It rapidly became one of the most famous, beloved and influential TV shows in Africa. It has been credited with changing the opinions and attitudes of millions of Africans across the continent towards many fundamental issues that were previously taboo—from domestic violence, mother and child health to AIDS.

Strange for a doctor to become a television producer. Life’s funny that way.

This story originally ran in issue #33 of Dumbo Feather

BERRY LIBERMAN: If you’re to tell your story, where does it start?

GARTH JAPHET: Where? At the beginning.

And the beginning is?

Well, my Dad in particular was very socially active. Dinner conversations were often ethical in nature. I became very aware of social injustice—that’s one of the big threads in my life. Another was that I was, in many ways, an only child; even though I’ve got three brothers and sisters, they’d all left home when I was growing up, and my parents were quite a lot older. I spent a hell of a lot of time by myself, and ended up reading a hell of a lot. I got enthralled with storytelling. With the insecurity of a young boy with bad acne and et cetera, et cetera, I think the hero story began to grip my imagination.

I remember quite distinctly reading a series of books called The Jungle Doctor when I was about eleven. There was something that combined the hero’s story with the problems of Africa, which, I think subliminally, captured my imagination. It sounds a bit weird, but the concept of the guy in a Land Rover crossing the swollen river to go and rescue the woman in labour and then doing a Caesarian section by torchlight was, you know, real Boy’s Own stuff. It was a combination of, on one level, quite a lot of insecurity, and on another level, wanting to be in some ways the rescuer.

There was one, only one minor problem—I wasn’t terribly good at maths or science, so all my inclinations were the arts. English and history were the things that I loved most. Just until I finished school, I was going to do law — law sort of felt like it was something that could deal with social justice. But there was a big element of the hero’s story and the swollen river that made medicine seem infinitely more attractive.

Seriously! So you chose medicine for your university degree from a romantic perspective?

In many ways, yeah. I don’t think I was ever fascinated by medicine. And it brought its own problems. But ultimately the maths and science and biology and physiology, I actually hated.

This story originally ran in issue #33 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #33 of Dumbo Feather

But you persisted! You became a doctor!

I did, yeah.

If I have one defining characteristic, it’s that I’m too stupid to know when I’m beaten.

I had decided I wanted to do medicine, and I went to the career counsellor, they said, ‘We think you can do most things. The one thing we think you shouldn’t do is medicine.’ And, by the way, I faint at the sight of blood.

So it was a great recipe. I then went overseas and did my A-levels. But I did A-levels in English and history in London.

There was a policy at that point at the medical school where a small percentage was kept aside for people who didn’t academically make the cut, but who, in terms of their social action and stuff, actually got in. I had been very single-minded about volunteering at hospitals, all of those sort of things. And miracle of miracles, I got into medicine. I hated the first three years with an absolute passion, but it was still the dream of what medicine possibly would hold out eventually that kept me going. I didn’t fail anything, but I did hate it. I remember guys in third or fourth year sort of saying, you know, ‘You’ll get over your idealism.’ Clearly the majority of people doing Medicine are not there to save the world, they’re there to make a good living, ‘My son the doctor,’ you know.

Or if they do have that idealism, it gets beaten out of them pretty quick.

Absolutely. So I still remember that guy coming up to me and saying, ‘You know what? You’ll get over this.’ So I finished, and it’s in that context that I had increasingly been exposed to the reality of Medicine. And by the way, yes, when I delivered my first baby, I did faint completely flat out on the floor. Thank God there was somebody with me.

Feeling safe in your hands!

So I ended up, for three and a half years, working mainly in either the what they call township areas, the poorer underdeveloped slum areas and rural areas of South Africa. So the Zulus are in that part of the country, and it was that time that led me to a crisis where I thought, Actually, seeing a hundred people a day and sending them back to the context that has created these problems in the first place is deeply disheartening. You become like a vet, basically. In these sort of contexts, that fluffy nice doctor–patient relationship stuff, there’s none of that. Because there’s too many people, too many problems. You just have to get on with it. So yeah, that basically led me to my first of many mid-life crises, where I essentially decided that I needed to get out of Medicine and start again. This is at the age of about twenty-seven.


I was persuaded to not quit. I was also deeply depressed. And, at this stage, I was working at a place called Alexandra, which was probably the oldest township in Johannesburg. Half a million people living in five square kilometres—a very dense slum area. That got me thinking about how, without being on the frontline and actually putting plasters on the wounds, I could begin to deal with these things.

My particular area of interest at that point was mother and child health. And that was the beginnings of my foray into media. I approached a newspaper editor and said, ‘I want to write for you.’ My vision was to try to de-medicalise health and begin to approach the health issues without using long words, and to relate things to everyday life, to everyday examples. So I started writing for this newspaper. It so happened that my column would come out on the Thursday, and the newspaper sales would rise on that Thursday. It was called “The Healthy Nation”.

Your article?

Yes. I doctored a question and answer style. So I’d say, ‘Mrs Tubanks asks me about hypertension, and does it really cause strokes… whatever.’ And of course I would be writing to myself. So I phrase all my questions to myself. So I was writing a newspaper column but, during the day, I was still being a doctor. And then, I think in a drunken stupor at a street party, I was sitting on the pavement with one of many beers and, you know, contemplating where next, where I suddenly had the idea that written media only gets to so many people. But what about using the same principles of television and radio to make health accessible, approachable? Initially I thought about a game show.

I went back to the editor of this newspaper and said, ‘Look, this is my idea.’ You’ve got to understand the context: this was 1991. Mandela had just been released from jail. I actually got to meet him three months after he’d been in jail because he came to a very war-torn part of the country where I was working, where I’d set up a clinic for refugees. And then in this place Alexandra, it also was wracked by violence, and again I got to meet him there.I ended up in two very major hotspots, real civil war zones. This was all happening at the same time. It wasn’t just nice placid business as usual. But the upside of all of that was that everything was changing. Everything was up for grabs. If I’d raised this idea of using media five years before, it just wouldn’t have worked, but because everything was changing, people were looking for new ways to do new things. So the editor loved the idea, and they gave me three months of my salary to give me the space to go and explore this idea. And that was Soul City.

And what was it?

The very basic idea was to use popular formats. So instead of saying, ‘Let’s talk health on a Tuesday afternoon,’ the approach was, ‘Let’s find a format that’s primetime, gets to the people, and is entertaining.’ My initial idea was a game show on television and radio, supported by print. With the three months I was given, I managed to raise a bit more money and, with no agenda in mind, I went on a roadshow to the States and UK and Europe. I went from one place to another finding out what people had done in this field—I found that no one had quite done what I was thinking about, which was an ongoing intervention. Everybody had taken an issue. The one thing that was clear was, particularly in the area of reproductive health, drama was what people were using. Of course, it must be story! So I came back from that trip with a very clear idea that we needed to create a prime-time drama. The other thing I realised was that you had to compete in the market.

Just because we were being worthy and had things to say, the watchword was to be as good as if not better than anything else that had been commercially available.

So number one was not to make this on a shoe-string budget, but to make it on a proper, full drama budget. The second was to find the very best creators out there.

This is all running up to the election in South Africa in ‘94. The fun thing was that Soul City was entirely based on the community and the clinic in which I was working. And the first series, in fact the first three series, were actually filmed in that community and in that clinic. So that became the recipe. Over time Soul City dealt with different issues. The big one that it dealt with consistently was HIV/AIDS, which, when we started in ‘92, was a non-issue. So a lot of people today would say, ‘Well, Soul City’s an HIV organisation.’

The big issue it’s dealing with right now is alcohol. It’s dealt quite extensively with violence against women. It puts other big public health issues such as, you know, asthma and malaria in the spotlight.

When you went to write a season of the drama, would you say, ‘We need to deal with this in this series?’ Or wasn’t it that obvious?

No. The other major recipe for why Soul City has done so well is that it’s completely research based. It takes eighteen months of development before we even get to the final script. Of that, a year is spent in formative research. We will identify two to three big social issues that we want to deal with, often through a collaborative process. We actually put out a call to the public, to key stake-holders, asking, “What do you feel is the next big disaster for Soul City to deal with?” Then we have a process which involves the so-called experts for literature and qualitative research—it’s about what people are saying about us on the ground, that’s really important.

We identified breast-feeding as a key issue. And clearly the message is, ‘A woman should breast-feed where possible.’ That would be the mandate of the series if we hadn’t gone through the formative research process with the general public, which showed very clearly that women knew that, and the issue was not so much not knowing that they should be breast-feeding—it was far more around the obstacles to breast-feeding. There were two major ones. One was the young mother not being able to get the support she needed from the older women around her, the second was the working mother. So, the messages were much more around the obstacles to this behaviour. It became key for us to understand the barriers and deal with those, rather than just promote a message.

You know, it’s a narrative society. I think every society is. But, in particular, the concept of handing on wisdom through story is one that is very, very key in the African tradition. If you think of all of our so-called fairy stories, the old ones, they’re all actually our values-based in one way or another. They try to teach something.

Tell me about the process of writing Soul City.

The process of writing was always very inclusive. The lead scriptwriter on Soul City has always been a very experienced person, but they’ve always worked with three or four other scriptwriters. Working in a team is the way in which Soul City and Heartlines have always worked. I suppose the biggest difference between the Soul City or Heartlines production and an L.A. Law or a Neighbours is that the scriptwriting process takes a hell of a lot longer because of the research. In each storyline, each draft, it’s actually tested with group surveys on a continual basis. It doesn’t rely just on the voice of one scriptwriter to tell a story. It’s very much a consultative process.

I suppose it’s a big question, but maybe you have thought about it: what is the African voice to you?

I’m not quite sure, I think it’s more around people’s context. So there is no one African voice, just like there is no one Australian voice. But it’s being true to people’s stories and their context. My writing a story about inner-city Melbourne without actually working with people who live there would not be true to an inner-city Melbourne voice. And the same is true of Africa. First of all, you can’t say ‘the African voice’ because it’s like saying ‘the Australian voice.’ It is slightly patronising. It’s about being true to the context in which we are writing or creating media around. So, I think as I said to you, the first series of Soul City we were based in the same township that I was working, Alexandra, so it needed to be an authentic voice coming out of that community. Which, by definition, was also a reflection on people living in very similar environments around the country, which was a relatively poor urban voice, which is different to a deep rural voice, which is different to a middle class urban voice.

Whenever you are attempting to tell a story and it is not your own, you’ve got to work closely with the people whose context it is.

It’s an interesting point, because your context, as we discussed, was so different to the communities you worked in as a young doctor. You obviously felt enormous empathy on many levels. What did that chasm of difference feel like to you? Did it feel like another place, or did you feel like you were in your home and something was wrong and needed to be fixed?

Geez… you’ve obviously put something in your tea.


These are complicated questions.

[Laughs] can I rephrase it? Do you want me to rephrase it?

No, no. You’ve got to remember that I’m on my first couple of coffees…

[Laughs] sorry.

I think that, to be honest, I don’t think that… that I ever really have reflected. It just was what was. It is. It’s our reality. I suppose the other important part of my narrative is that in many ways, because of being in South Africa, we had servants. We had people who, you know, I was probably closer to than my mother. We had a gardener and a man who was in my house and a woman who was in my house—I think that the bond with those people, as I say, was in many ways closer to the lady who was in my life and bringing me up than my mother. And so there was a resonance with black people.I’ve never thought of it until this second, actually. I’d been slowly introduced to the context in which they lived. Because remember, I’d studied for six years, and in that period had gone into those contexts in the hospitals, the clinics, et cetera. So I wasn’t uncomfortable. I was always very aware of the fact that one is privileged and white. But it’s like, I suppose, being aware of the fact that you’re a woman. It just… is.

I was wondering as well about Heartlines, which you mentioned before. The whole premise of Heartlines is that our values determine our behaviour. And so your storytelling is all around value sets, which is an incredibly strong tie to faith, belief, religion. And you’ve even got that on your website, that you work with religious communities to foster these conversations around values—values of the individual and values of community. Do you have faith? Is that a part of your narrative?

Yeah. I mean, you’re getting me at a difficult period. So the answer is, ‘Yes, it was very much a faith decision.’ In the turmoil of my late twenties, I was trying to work out who I was and what this big world was about, the nature of life and death, et cetera. The issue of faith was part of that discovery. I am Christian, but at the end of the day, my Dad was Jewish, my cousins were Jewish. So I suppose the concept of other beliefs and other ways has always been very real to me.

I’ve never really struggled with the existence of God, but I think being a doctor has convinced me of the existence of a human spirit as opposed to just a human body.

You know, having seen a number of people die and being with them at the point of death, you are very aware of the fact that something leaves, that the spirit is no longer there.

I’ve seen life leave. And it does leave. When life is gone, there’s a very tangible sense that the body is left but something has gone. So the existence of the spirit, and by definition, I believe that the existence of God, for me, is not in question. What is in question is the nature of God.

And what do you mean by that?

Well, you know, they’ve written a song… “From a distance… God is watching us from a distance.” Is that true? Or is God actually intimately involved in the affairs of humanity? My faith tells me that he is. My experience makes me want to make sure. We absolutely engage with people of faith, because I believe that, ultimately, the temperance of a structure and the core beliefs of a major faith are what build great communities.

The premise of Heartlines is that the biggest social network in Africa, particularly in Southern Africa, is faith. You know, it’s extraordinary—compared to Australia, you’ve got sixty per cent of the population attending a church once a month. And deep within all the major faiths are these basic human values. My premise was that we could help these faiths to actually address real living issues. You know it wasn’t as though we had to convert them to believing that trust is a good thing. But help them with tools to challenge the people who believe their faiths to start living them in a more intentional way. So it was a very romantic idea. We haven’t had the sort of impact that I’d hoped. But I think I’ve also become a bit more realistic about social change. And that clear narratives will inspire people, and can move the dialogue a few degrees. You know, there are other big forces at play.


Look. I do believe that human nature fundamentally is a mixture of good and bad. I think we vacillate between the good and the bad.

And you know the big forces in society, particularly in terms of money, materialism, power, greed. In a modern society—particularly in societies in transition where you had people who have been disenfranchised and poor for many generations, suddenly have the potential to have money and possessions—it’s a very, very powerful force.

I mean we’ve seen it in the former Soviet Union where there’s an excess of consumption and greed and materialism. And that feeds into very individualistic, ‘I’ll make my own values and as long as it works for me it’s going to work,’ approaches which are not very pro-social, pro-community. So the forces of consumption, materialism, and individualism are essentially strong, especially in a community like ours, which is in transition.

And why do you say you haven’t had the impact?

Well, you know, I still haven’t got over the fact that I want to change the world. I thought this was going to be the silver bullet. And, you know, the reality isn’t like that. It’s just not been my experience in this field. I’ve just waded into this thinking that I could translate all my experience in other media into digital, for example, and it’s just not been the case. So I’ve learnt a huge amount, paid a lot of school fees. Whether I’m going to be around long enough to use my school fees remains to be seen.

That’s hard!

It is hard. It is, it is. But, you know, at the end of the day, you know, failure is… is part of the journey.

So… it’s a funny question, but where do you get your strength and inspiration?

It’s called Trimipramine.

What’s that?

It’s a tricyclic anti-depressant.

[Laughs] yep. That’s the answer I was looking for. You were talking about being a young man who was idealistic. You spent a vast chunk of your twenties doing something you hated, which put you in a deep depression. Then you had this idea, and then you went for it. So what was that like when it took off?

Well I think, from a career point of view, it obviously felt really good. Just being exposed to a different world and to work within the arts, instead of dealing with somebody’s sexually transmitted disease, to be sitting with a scriptwriter and focus groups and, you know, batting the fat and things. I just leapt, you know. So it clearly connected into a really deep part of me, and exposed, I suppose, another part that I didn’t know I really had, which was the ability to take ideas and translate them into action—I think that is a great gifting.

Once you start to move into where your gifting is, clearly things feel a hell of a lot better.

Going back to that doctor in your path who said, ‘You’ll have the idealism beaten out of you.’ Why do you think it wasn’t beaten out of you when it is in so many people?

Without being melodramatic, I’m not sure that any of us ever do things for completely altruistic motives. There was a deep need in me to save my bit of the world. The visionary, the save the world-ness had a lot to do with making me feel good about me. I suppose that’s part of the reason why it was never beaten out, because that subliminal need was still there.

You know, I think we often do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and that’s become my mantra recently, that I think that’s okay.

You think it’s okay?

You know, recently I’ve begun to look at what actually really does get people to change behaviour significantly. I think about something like smoking. Now, everybody knows that smoking’s bad for you. The thing that has had the biggest impact on smoking is price and the banning of smoking in public places. So people are stopping smoking or smoking less for the wrong reasons. They’re not stopping smoking because they know it’s bad for themselves and their families. In many ways, my altruistic need to save the world, you know, is not entirely altruistic. I think you look into anybody’s real story who is driven and visionary—it’s often that they’re coming out of something different. If that makes any sense?

Yeah. And going with the flow that you find. It seems like in that drunken night on that pavement you came up with a good idea, and you knew it.

Yeah, and it also came out of a bit of an existential crisis. I suppose the other fortunate thing is having grown up in a middle-class family where there was always enough money, I was fortunate that in many ways money was not, and still isn’t, my driving need. So I think there are a lot of circumstances in a melting pot that leads us to form what we do.

In South Africa, it’s dealing with massive uncertainty all the time. But with that comes great potential. I think societies like Israel and South Africa bring out the very best and very worst in people, whereas more settled societies like, you know, Australia, have a far greater swathe of people that are somewhere in the middle. But being in a pressure cooker, which is what this is, basically, brings out the saints and the sinners in a far greater way than a so-called settled society. And with that comes opportunity. So one does feel intensely alive—intensely alive and intensely anxious at the same time.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Chris Saunders

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