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.