Changing SA one heart at a time

“All the problems in the world are based
on a breakdown of relationships, from the
financial crisis right through to HIV and
Aids,” says Dr Garth Japhet.

A still from the television series Hopeville,
which aims to teach the values of the
Heartlines campaign.
(Images: Heartlines)

Wilma den Hartigh

When Dr Garth Japhet started his career as a medical doctor he had no idea he would one day pioneer Soul City and Heartlines, two highly successful social change projects.

Japhet always knew that he wanted to be a doctor, but was never interested in opening a private practice. He had a desire to provide medical care to poverty-stricken people and decided the best way to do this was to work in rural and township clinics.

He worked in rural clinics for five years, but soon became despondent seeing people’s everyday suffering .

“I realised that I wanted to make a difference to people’s health in Africa and I wanted to find a way to communicate health issues,” Japhet explains.

His first idea was to use newspapers. He approached the Sowetan in 1991 and started writing about health in a non-clinical and accessible way.

“I wanted to write in a language that people could understand, make health issues interesting and relate it people’s everyday lives,” he says.

But he soon realised that the written medium wouldn’t reach a large majority of South Africans – some of whom have no access to newspapers, or cannot read.

He decided that a multimedia approach, including the use of radio and television, would be most effective. He went on to create Soul City, a series of programmes that examine health and development issues. Today it is one of the three most-watched dramas on South African television.

His move to television was a major shift from the dusty township streets.  But although he may have swapped his stethoscope for the television cameras, he says he is still a doctor, only using different tools.

“Now I use communication instead of medication. I’ve just chosen a different medium to help people,” he says.

Japhet is delighted at the major impact the Soul City series is having on people’s lives in South Africa. The programmes are also popular elsewhere in Africa, being broadcast in 10 countries on the continent and reaching about 45-million people.

Japhet’s work didn’t end with Soul City. He then went on to launch the Heartlines project, an initiative to promote social change through promoting values.

“All the problems in the world are based on a breakdown of relationships, from the financial crisis right through to HIV and Aids,” he explains.

Heartlines also uses television to broadcast its message, through the highly successful Hopeville series. Hopeville, currently on SABC 2, attempts to restore relationships by telling the story of a community without hope transformed by one man’s courage to live out his values.

Heartlines challenges people – irrespective of race, gender, age or religion – to live out positive values in a way that will build people, families, communities and the nation. Japhet believes that the vast majority of South Africans already aspire to a set of good values, which, if lived, would transform our country.

He says that television is predominantly a medium to provide entertainment, but it can also be a powerful tool to bring about social change. South Africa is no different – at least 85% of the population can access television.

“It is my firm belief that media drives culture,” he says. “Television should not just be about entertainment, but also about doing good.”

Their goal is to reach 80% to 90% of the South African population, but it seems as if Japhet and his team is already successful in communicating their message.

“The Heartlines films have been extremely well received and have won numerous awards for film excellence,” he says. Other African countries have also expressed interest in the programmes.  Zimbabwe will soon flight the first Heartlines series in an effort to help restore relationships in that damaged country.

He adds that the story-medium has also contributed to the success of Heartlines: “We found that story-based programmes instead of talk shows is the best approach, because everybody loves a good story.”

What is next after Hopeville? Japhet is already started working on developing the Movement for Good, a new initiative that will use cell phone text messages and the internet to inspire and motivate people to take action for good. It will be membership-based and anyone can join. The Movement for Good is another step in the right direction to make South Africa a safer, healthier and more compassionate place.

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