Art & life: Series – Dust & dreams
It is afternoon in Crown Mines, a neighbourhood not far from downtown Johannesburg: the air is thick and misty, and soft sun rays escape through the closely built houses and the fences that circle them. With the hum of traffic in the distance, Crown Mines settles into a kind of sombre poetry.
Crown Mines is also the location of the new drama series Tjovitjo, which debuted in August 2017 at a prime time, Sunday 8pm, on a prime channel, SABC1. The series has a beautiful texture to it from the dust on the streets and the flow of smoke in the air.
It is months after Tjovitjo wrapped shooting and yet its relics still hang on people’s doors. The texture that the creators captured in the series can be seen up close as smoke from the fires people have started outside their houses hog the main street. Walking through the neighbourhood, the show’s director, Vincent Moloi, and producer, Lodi Matsetela, are greeted by the residents like members of their own families. There is an intimacy between them. Earlier in our interview Moloi said that, as a black filmmaker, one becomes a psychologist.
Tjovitjo follows the lives of dance group amaTjovitjo led by Mafred – played by Warren Masemola – a thug and dancer with a past as a petty criminal, who is seeking the approval of his community. The series is centred on isipantsula – a dance popular in the township that emerged in the 1950s, in the shadow of apartheid. Beneath the dusty street dance-offs, each week Tjovitjo delves into contemporary issues that plague South Africa and the youth, such as unsafe abortion, zama-zama (illegal mining) and physical abuse.
As Moloi and Matsetela move through the neighbourhood, the people they talk to update them on the community’s plight against the owners of the land and ask if there is anything they can do to help. Most of the residents have lived there all their lives and strongly believe they have a right to the land.
Crown Mines has been a location for a number of film productions but the community does not see much of the money: it goes to the landowners and yet there is very little development. During shoot days, Tjovitjo could only be filmed whilst the sun was up due to unreliable electricity. On the day we visited the location, the power was out and no one knew the reason why.
On its debut, the show recorded 5.7 million viewers and 4.3 million on its next episode. It instantly resonated with audiences and went on to win in several categories at the South African Television Awards (SAFTA) a few months later.
The show felt particularly close to home for black teenagers, for whom isipantsula remains a popular dance, and an older generation of black people who grew up in those townships when such dances and movements were developing. There is a collective pride in blackness and the once-looked-down-on townships they grew up in.
Three episodes into the series, a friend of mine who grew up in another township in Soweto, and whose culture Tjovitjo was narrating, said he felt seen when watching the programme.
“Apartheid was not just a system that suppressed black people, but it encouraged extreme exploitation. So we’re conscious of our responsibility to empower the most vulnerable of our communities,” Moloi says. “For us, Tjovitjo has been a great vehicle for a paradigm shift on and off the screen. We often say we’re not just a drama series but we’re a movement, and it makes us happy when we see it in practice.”
The reception was near perfect but Moloi thought that the show was at least five years late. He points out that had it screened back then it would have preceded the popular music videos by Beyoncé and Sons of Kemet, both of which included isipantsula dance. He wanted to make the point that black Africans appreciate, and celebrate, their own culture.
It is not difficult to understand Moloi’s feelings about the popularity of Tjovitjo and of pantsula culture in general. He and Matsetela, his partner at Puo Pha Productions, had spent those five years developing the series and trying to raise funding. Funding bodies, for myriad reasons, kept declining it. Moloi tells the tale with laughter now but at the time there was no hint of humour in it. The few funders that showed interest in the show, he says, could not find synergy in the proposed working relationship, which was something both Moloi and Matsetela believed in so they refused to enter into deals that would compromise this.
But at the nucleus of the rejections was that the premise of the series, a story about pantsula culture, had never been on television before and no one wanted to risk their money on the unknown.
For Moloi, the idea was never in doubt. Gleefully, he recounts its origins with his classic interlocutor flair, English escaping his mouth through filters of his home language, seSotho. He speaks with passion, enunciating every word and digressing, hopping from one anecdote to another, and then returning to his main point, marrying all of the digressions into a single thought. Many years ago, Moloi watched a man stop an entire school soccer game by dancing isipantsula. That day stayed with him all his life.
Despite its wide popularity, the show was not universally well-received. Some viewers found it visually odd and the storyline too slow to develop. Considering the number of soapies and telenovelas that are a staple diet for South African viewers, shows that look and feel the same, regurgitating the same storylines, it was understandable that the show would be jarring for some.
The popular storylines on South African television lean toward depicting and misrepresenting the black middle class as a demographic that has moved out of the township and into the suburbs, or those that have lived their entire lives in the suburbs so that they cannot speak their own languages properly. There are rarely any characters from the township, and when they do appear they portray people that cannot speak English well and are always trying to leave the township.
Moloi was convinced that the show needed to look nothing like what was already on television in South Africa and that the storyline needed to weave multiple elements. To achieve the visual aesthetic, he leaned towards kung fu and karate films. Born in Taung, a small town in the North West Province of South Africa, and then growing up in Soweto, he had religiously watched these types of films. Asian filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Ang Lee, Tsui Hark and others became the obvious auteurs to reference.
“I wanted to visually put the one man against the other. The camera had to rush and capture the eyes of the one man and his anger as it does in kung fu films,” he says. “Dance in Tjovitjo is currency and it is a weapon to mark one’s territory.”
During our interview, Moloi reiterates that Tjovitjo was a conceptual project that became commercial. To overcome the hurdle of funding, Matsetela and Moloi proposed to license the series to the SABC: this guaranteed SABC would not lose money, but meant the two of them would have to finance the project from their own pockets. It would mean digging deep, however deep their pockets went, and then even further, into their family’s and children’s savings, to make the show.
When they showed the pilot to SABC1, the channel loved it and committed finance and capacity to see it finished.
Apart from well-known actors like Rapulana Seiphemo, Harriet Manamela and Soso Rungqu, the show made the decision to go with mainly first-time actors who were pantsula dancers. Many of them have since gone on to launch their own careers. The decision came from a desire for authenticity and making a larger impact, beyond the screen.
“Lodi and Vincent’s passion for this show and investment in us has been phenomenal,” says Lebo Tsoari, who plays the role of Maskhozi, a member of Mafred’s crew. “Through the process of Tjovitjo, I went on a learnership and now I am able to edit, direct, shoot and produce videos.”
Some community members were cast in minor dancer roles and as extras, while others worked in catering or the art department, and as assistant directors.
The plans for the second season are under way and this time Matsetela and Moloi will be spared the tormenting nightmares of self-funding. Not only that, but sitting at the table with the SABC is on different terms now. They can flail their arms in the air as much as they want when they explain their creative direction and even rest their feet on the table and demand better revenue.
They cannot give this much of themselves to a project without it taking them apart a little, unravelling every fold of any thick skin they have developed, but one hopes that the two have enough strength to produce the next season of the show with even more daring ideas. If not for their own sanity, then for all the television viewers in South Africa who need a TV show like this – a show that asks more of their thinking and reflects relatable everyday issues.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine