From her very first day in television production, Melody Xaba had set herself some very clear goals.
The first one was modest. It was to make up for the salary she had walked away from in 2006 when she began her BA in television production at the Johannesburg campus of the South African School of Motion Picture and Live Performance (AFDA). It was a decision that came with a price. Growing up in Soweto with a family of limited means, university hadn’t been an option. Instead, for three years she bounced from one low-paying job to the next. But then she landed a post in a call centre, which paid well enough for her to help out her family.
“I was earning proper money for the first time,” Xaba recalls.
But working in a call centre wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. “If I wanted to get out of poverty, like really, I knew that I needed to get a proper education,” she says. “It was also something that I needed to do for myself – to be able to express myself fully in something that I love is invaluable.”
Opportunity came a-knocking in 2005, just as she was window shopping for a first car. An email invited her to an interview with the National Film and Video Foundation for a scholarship she’d applied for. It turned out to be a defining moment in her life.
The interviewer convinced her to study producing, a field that few young students were willing to enter as it wasn’t as glamorous as being a writer or director. He, the interviewer told her, had the strong personality and determination that the job demanded. What’s more, he said, if Xaba wanted a seat at the table where the real money and the real decisions were made, she was going to have to be a producer.
A seat at the table
Xaba accepted the challenge and enrolled, only telling her family of her career-altering decision on the month that she was starting her studies. She quickly registered that, in the filmmaking industry, you live or die by your contacts. Of which she had none.
“I was the first person in my family to go to university,” Xaba says. “So this was a completely new world to me. And I realised that for young people like me, who come from where I came from, I was going to have to be the contact.”
So more than just wanting to at least match her former call centre salary – forget about starting off as a lowly paid runner on a film set – Xaba was going to have to climb the production ladder quickly.
Her first big break came at Red Pepper Pictures, the Johannesburg production company she joined in 2009, soon after finishing her AFDA degree, where she worked as production coordinator on the popular music show ‘Jam Alley’ and then as format developer, producer and director on a host of talk, game, reality and children’s shows.
One show – ‘Our Perfect Wedding’ – a breakout success, was based on her own wedding experience. In the middle of her three-day ceremony, she decided that “black weddings need their own TV show”, she told ‘Mail & Guardian’ in 2019 when the newspaper named her among its ‘200 Young South Africans’ who were carving a name and reputation for themselves in the country.
In a few short years, working for production companies and as a freelance producer, Xaba was an established and respected producer with an enviable inventory of award-winning shows under her belt including ‘Club808’ and ‘Craze’ (both for e.tv). And she was ready for new challenges. It was time to get serious about the business of show business.
The courage to try other stuff
Early in her producing career, Xaba had completed a postgraduate diploma in business administration at Milpark Business School. “I had known then that if I wanted to be better at the business of television production, it would make more sense to go into business school.”
Naturally, an MBA had been added to her to-do list, but was postponed after the birth of her two children. By 2018, however, Xaba decided that her kids were old enough for the ambition to be taken out of storage. Serendipitously, Xaba told a client, a Henley graduate, that she was thinking of doing an MBA, and they immediately sold her on Henley Africa, telling her that it was a business school that “embraces creatives” and also that it was “family-friendly”.
That proved to be true. Even though she and a musician were the only ‘creatives’ in the class, the MBA allowed Xaba to weave the specifics of the often unconventional entertainment industry into broader business principles. But more than anything the MBA emboldened Xaba to answer some of the questions she’d been asking herself about her future, and to dip her toes into some fresh career waters.
A year after starting at Henley she took an extended sabbatical from the entertainment industry and started her own business, MyFutureWork, a company that specialises in building e-learning courses around custom-made multimedia content. Key offerings include a digital citizen workshop and instructional design internships.
“Henley gave me the courage to try other stuff,” Xaba says. “It got me to look outside of the entertainment industry.”
And those three letter behind her name – MBA – add a certain credibility when she walks into a pitch meeting, she notes.
Henley dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley says: “Henley Africa has unique scholarships for emerging leaders in the music and creative industries in South Africa. We want to support the growth of the arts and help create future leaders. The creative industries are critical for the future transformation of the South African economy into a modern and multidimensional economy. Melody was one of the first recipients of the scholarships and has shown through her actions why these scholarships have so much value and contribute so much to South Africa.”
Former colleagues did eventually lure Xaba back for the occasional producing gig, but MyFutureWork remains very important because technology is the future, she says. “I love entertainment and TV, but I’m also in a place where I’m building multiple revenue streams. TV is not my bread and butter anymore, and therefore I’m creating from a different place.”
And that MBA has prepared her for many more ventures, Xaba notes. “Its fullness is yet to come.”