Isidingo continues to let women down

23 May – Viewers of Isidingo will know Nikiwe Sibeko as the CEO of Sibeko Gold and the long-suffering daughter of the ruthless Lincoln Sibeko. For the past few years, we have watched as Nikiwe came into her own as a businesswoman. While she worked to become the best at what she does, she had to contend with negativity from the Horizon Deep community and from her own father.

While that was happening, Nikiwe has found herself becoming increasingly entangled in that deadly TV trope: the successful businesswoman at the mercy of her ambitions and plagued by insecurities, the bulk of which are played out in her romantic relationships. So good at work, so bad at everything else. This has happened on Generations (with Karabo Moroka) and on Muvhango (with Thandaza Mukwevho), to varying degrees.

It is deeply frustrating to watch a woman be portrayed as “incomplete” without a romantic connection, and simultaneously incapable of maintaining said relationship (once she eventually enters into one) because she is “too ambitious”. By writing characters like this, those who produce TV are giving with one hand while taking away with the other. They show us that a woman (a black woman) can be powerful and successful in her own right, but then in the same breath they tell us how much she has to sacrifice – how much of herself she has to lose – in order to keep that position.

In Nikiwe’s case, the writers have chosen to present her as a businesswoman on the brink of a new phase in her professional life (through the risks and decisions she has had to make in the midst of her father’s trial and subsequent incarceration), as well as a woman who is clueless (to the point of recklessness) in relationships.

From the beginning of her relationship with Gabriel, I sensed danger. True to another TV trope, the “love triangle”, Nikiwe cheated on her boyfriend (“the Good Guy”) with a new and exciting guy with an edge who “made her feel alive” (a cliché that makes me want to throw up). Nothing good ever comes from cheating, in real life or on TV. So, when Gabriel began to show his true colours, I hoped Nikiwe would see through him. Instead, because she is so focused on her career, Nikiwe blocked out her father’s warnings and ignored the signs in Gabriel’s behaviour.

When Gabriel muscled his way into her company, Nikiwe let it go. When he began speaking for her without her permission, she kept quiet. When he moved into her house (which is also her father’s house) and started ordering the staff around as if he were their employer, Nikiwe barely flinched. Little by little, Gabriel took over Nikiwe’s personal life. Week after week, we saw how the relationship continued to grow more and more uncomfortable.

And that is one of the biggest issues with Nikiwe’s storyline: It is glaringly obvious that this relationship is toxic, and that Nikiwe no longer feels fulfilled in it, yet we are expected to believe that she doesn’t know how to speak up for herself. Her smarts in the boardroom can’t possibly extend to other areas of her life, right?

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A few months ago when Gabriel ambushed her with a marriage proposal, I so wished that she would say no, and finally be free. Instead, she had wild eyes and her mouth was agape, as if she were a fish out of water, and she accepted. The pressure of the crowd and the shock of having to actually make a decision where Gabriel was concerned caused her to trap herself in an engagement from hell.

Knowing now that he could get away with anything, Gabriel lived in Nikiwe’s house (ate her food, abused her staff, disrespected her guests) and continued to steal from Nikiwe right under her nose.

At this point, any scenes involving the two of them were draining to watch. He with his propensity for dramatic speeches that are prime examples of gaslighting, and she with her futile shouting and half-hearted arguments. He gets away with it, and she can be found flailing in a corner, in her own house. In her own life.

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The latest plot details concerning the wedding date have taken the story to a more insulting level than I previously thought possible. Even when we thought Nikiwe would finally wise up (it had to be an external party, Nina Zamdela, who revealed Gabriel’s true self to Nikiwe), the show decided to keep Nikiwe helpless and illogical. She broke up with Gabriel, but he did not accept it or even take it seriously – an attitude which he has maintained when interacting with Nikiwe. He continued to stay in the house and taunt her. Nikiwe, for her part, decided not to be honest with those closest to her (and indeed with herself) and tell them that her relationship was over. After all, how can a successful woman admit to have a failed relationship? That would be pitiful.

And it is this fear of judgement from others that I believe has kept Nikiwe in this situation for so incredibly long. She can’t accept that people were right about Gabriel, because that would mean that she was wrong. It would mean that she doesn’t have the instinct to recognise and cultivate a healthy relationship. And that, in the world of Isidingo, is the ultimate shame.

The writers have made this fear and shame so alive in Nikiwe, that she is at the point where she does not speak up for herself against Gabriel. She has given him the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants in her life, which is why he has the audacity to announce a wedding date (how can you marry someone who has broken up with you?), and to take over Nikiwe’s interview with a magazine.

Watching Gabriel posture for the journalists and the cameras, cutting Nikiwe off when she talks about business so that he can emphasise how she was “raised to be a good wife and mother” was truly sickening. He is so full of ego and entitlement that he can say out loud that Nikiwe’s purpose is to be his wife and bear his children. Sies, mahn.

I am deeply disappointed in the message that Isidingo is conveying through Nikiwe’s characters. Why perpetuate the message that women can’t be successful in both their professional and personal relationships? Is it not irresponsible to suggest that a woman can only “keep” a man if she keeps her mouth shut?

This may be fiction, but to carry on as if what people watch does not feed into their beliefs about and interactions with other people is an insult to viewers’ intelligence.


*24 May – In last night’s episode, Nikiwe seemed to be taking her speech right out of my thoughts when she asked why she couldn’t be as successful at work as in relationships. Perhaps the writers were waiting for people to become angry and tired before trying something new with the story…? It seemed like a turning point, but at the end of the episode Gabriel was still in the house. 

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