They are a new television odd couple of sorts. One is black, the other white. One is lean and athletic-looking, his dark skin taut on the tightly muscled body of an ex-pro soccer player. The other is fair-haired, slim, very much the rising young executive. Both are from South Africa, one from Durban, the other from Johannesburg.
But when it comes to the gut-wrenching questions that you might think would split the opinions of a black man and a white from South Africa, they become echoes of each other. Apartheid is a dirty word to both, but the withdrawal of American business from their country is doing more harm than good, they say. And both have qualms about the tactics of Winnie Mandella. Both long for change in the apartheid system, and want it to come peacefully.
But political questions are not the ties that bind them. A large part of their lives and fortunes is bound up in a television show, a 10-hour, five-night miniseries called "Shaka Zulu" airing 8 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday this week on WTTG.
For William C. Faure, the show's director, getting it on the air was a nine-year effort. For the star, Henry Cele, the series, which has aired internationally over the past year, has been a quick ticket to stardom at home and recognition abroad.
For Washington viewers, the show has been something of a distant drumbeat, a series they may have seen on stations in other cities but which has been but a rumor here. Its airing has been preceded by a year of criticism and acclaim.
The series has been attacked because of the source of some of its financing and because of the authenticity of some characters' native dress, which includes women in topless costume.
Basically, "Shaka Zulu" is the 200-year-old story of the rise of the legendary Zulu leader amid the rising European colonial expansion and migration into Africa. It is a series done on a broad, sweeping scale, with its factuality asserted by its creators.
On a recent promotional tour, the series' star, Cele, and its director, Faure, talked about the crosscurrents and undertows that have marked the show's history and its portent for their futures.
Its troubled history goes back a decade, when Faure first went looking for financial support for the project.
The series, produced by Harmony Gold, was partly financed by the government of South Africa, prompting some critics to question the origin and intent of the piece.
Development of the series began in 1977, Faure recalled. Ultimately, he got the friendly ear of Frank Agrama, president of Harmony Gold and this show's associate producer. "I vibed him on the project," said Faure. "Harmony Gold got involved, and Frank tried to pre-sell the project."
One of the pre-buyers was the government of South Africa.
The president of domestic television at Harmony Gold, Bob Lloyd, confirmed that South African Broadcasting had underwritten the project, but said that was not an unusal move. "We're talking about entertainment," he told View magazine. "We're not politicians."
The same contemporary events that helped promote "Shaka Zulu" -- the popularity of "Out of Africa" and, especially, the inflammation of the apartheid question in South Africa and abroad -- no doubt have contributed to the scrutiny and criticism some have directed at the show.
Its producers point out that the series is set in the early 1800s and should not be confused with modern-day apartheid.
But, of course, the series does deal with the confrontation between native African blacks and colonizing Europeans.
Faure pointed to the great effort made to produce an authentic, balanced presentation of the Shaka Zulu era. Zulus were interviewed for their oral tribal history to augment the written, colonial-oriented history, said Faure. Some of the location shooting was done at sites sacred to the Zulus, and a number of the series' sets were deemed so authentic they became museum pieces. As to the show's costuming, which Faure said some felt was "barbaric," "the Zulus would be insulted by that view." Authenticity was the goal, he said.
"What we have is recalled history combined with myth and legend," said Faure. "Sort of a Knights of the Round Table."
What they also have is a piece that might play to Zulus very much as "Roots" did to American blacks.
And there's budding stardom for the strikingly featured Cele. He was one of about 4,000 actors considered to some degree for the part, said Faure. Faure was under pressure to get a name actor, maybe Richard Roundtree, for the part. He stuck with the 43-year-old father of four children. "We got the canopy names on the white side," he said, with Edward Fox, Trevor Howard and Roy Dotrice among them.
In the process, Cele's life was changed. The product of a broken home, Cele said he was rescued from an uncertain future by the game of soccer. "I had quit school and didn't have anyone to look after me but my teammates and team officials," he said. "Football helped me a great deal."
At 23, he found someone else to watch over him -- his wife -- and now has three daughters and a son. "A Zulu is allowed to have as many wives as he wants," said Cele, but Marvis is his one and only. (His 16-year-old son, Khumbulani, the oldest child and the only boy, plays Shaka as a youth.)
When the "Shaka" talent scouts found Cele, he was performing on stage, having left his soccer-playing days behind. Two films have followed his work in "Shaka."
"Playing Shaka changed my life," he said. "I am looked upon as a living legend ... I can't wear shorts when I go shopping now -- I must always dress up" as Shaka might today.
He has another stage production in the works, he said, a role that would have him play a boxer and sing.
And both he and Faure have felt Hollywood beckon. There are those who want Faure to bring his production expertise to the United States. But he plans to stay in South Africa. "TV can break barriers," he said, "educate children and bring them together."
Cele's eyes sparkled and he laughed when Hollywood is mentioned. "I would go in a minute," he laughed. But that would take him away from his roots. He hasn't forgotten where he came from. One of his side pursuits is his work with an organization in Johannesburg that tries to help street kids. "They remind me of myself," he said.