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Saturday, 10 March, 2001, 14:15 GMT
Serious side to SA sitcom
Publicity shot from Marge & Eve
The characters try to out-do each other (pictures eTV)
By the BBC's Jane Standley

What is possibly South Africa's best loved cartoon strip - about a rich white woman and her black domestic servant - has been turned into a TV sitcom.

Publicity shot from Marge & Eve
The show is a spin-off from the popular cartoon
The antics of Gwen, the white Madam, and her black maid, Eve, send up the relationships between black and white people.

But the sketches, more seriously, highlight the country's economic divisions and the political mistakes of its former apartheid bosses and its newer, ruling black elite.

Madam and Eve are locked in power struggle, but the two women are actually very close, their lives interdependent.

True to life?

"I see bits of her in me, my friends, my mum, my aunties," says Val Donald Bell, who plays Madam.

She says not only is the relationship still a fact of South African life - so is Madam herself.

Madam (in bed)
Madam finds it hard to change
"Madam is alive and well and she wants to try and change," she says. "And she's trying her best but she's got years of baggage sitting on her back, if you know what I mean.

"When I say I understand it, I truly do. My life was happy, I was very comfortable in the old South Africa.

"You know the only thing I demonstrated against at Varsity was the toilet paper, for goodness sake."

Handling change

Motshabi Tylele, who plays Eve, believes that many real, white South Africans also have not adjusted to the new reality.

"Madams can't do without their maids, but the maids can survive without the madams," she says.

"We talk about change, but as to how much of that are we prepared to go, you know, it's another question."

Motshabi Tylele: 'Easier for the maids'
At the crux is economic apartheid - the enduring poverty of many black people, against the comfort of many whites.

For Dr Sheila Meinkies of the University of the Witwatersrand, Madam and Eve forces South Africans to look at the strange position they are now in - living side by side as before, but in a new era.

"It really hones into some of the discomfort that is arising in these relationships and the inequality of that relationship, the embedded inequality on the one hand and the intimacy of that relationship on the other," says Dr Meintjes.

"It's something that everybody is trying to grapple with".

Political comment

At the cartoonist's studio I see more Madam and Eve adventures being drawn. Madam's son, who cannot get a job because of affirmative action, is joining the army. But that is only because the military is in such a mess that he will not have to work.

These are hot political issues in South Africa. In a nearly decade of existence, Madam and Eve have never shrunk from the fight, even during apartheid.

"I think the absolutely key thing for us is that people who have taken the oath of office keep to the promises which they have made," says Harry Dugmore, one of Madam and Eve's creators.

"So when we see people behaving in a way that they are either borderline corrupt, or they just don't seem to see the reality like the way the rest of South Africans see it, we are going to have a go."

That is easier to do in a daily, fast-moving cartoon than in a sitcom. Madam and Eve may not survive the transition from page to screen.

But however biting the humour, and in whatever form, it must of course still get the laughs.

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See also:

16 Dec 00 | Africa
Rainbow nation at risk?
24 Aug 00 | Africa
Racism 'pervasive' in SA media
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28 Aug 00 | Africa
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