The famous actor known for his robust characters on TV and film has now added director, writer and producer to his resumé with his debut feature film, Freedom.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Main image by: Mzu Nhlabatsi
Jafta has been a prominent fixture on our TV screens since he burst into the scene as an 11-year-old entertainer. He gained popularity as one of the young leads on the youth show Soul Buddyz, and as one of the presenters on YoTV, Craz–e, and The Molo Show.
He then made a swift and impressive transition from child star to a formidable actor, starring in popular TV shows like Generations and internationally acclaimed films like Jerusalema and Otelo Burning. Now he is stepping behind the scenes and taking charge of the narrative as a writer, producer and director. His latest film, Freedom (now available on DStv Boxoffice), is his first attempt at being at the helm of film production.
“I am not going to lie; it was a daunting task. I am not going to act like I am Martin Scorsese,” he tells Blacklight. “Support from your team is very important. And the team that produced this film was the same team that produced Jerusalema.
“I was fortunate to work with a team that has always believed in me from the very beginning. A team that has watched me become the artists and the man that I am today. These are people who have always been invested in my career and wanted to see me produce my best work.”
Jafta co-directed the film with acclaimed film director Ralph Ziman (director of Jerusalema, The Zookeeper). Ziman also served as one of the executive producers. The film also boasts a legendary cast, which includes the late Mary Twala (as Alina), Kenneth Nkosi (Zechariah) and Jeffrey Sekele (Goodman), to name a few.
The film, primarily shot in Yeoville and Hillbrow, Johannesburg, tries to dismantle the concept of “freedom” in the new South Africa. It follows Freedom, played by Jafta, a young struggling student grappling with the gloom and evil in Johannesburg; in the backdrop of the #FeesMustFall” movement.
“I get asked a lot about what I want people to take away from this film. And I always stress that I don’t have a particular message that I am trying to get out there,” he explains. “I want this to be a conversation starter – no matter the conversation. It needs to be the gasoline and the matchstick.
“We are three decades into our democracy, but what is this freedom that we speak of? What does it look like? I believe that freedom is three spheres: It’s political, economic and psychological. If the economic and psychological aspects are missing, then are we truly free? If we have been short-changed, what are we doing about it? If nothing, then why?”
Jafta reveals that the concept for the script came after his tenure on the popular soapie, Generations. During his brief hiatus from acting, he found himself with a lot of time to write scripts. He also conceptualised and developed the popular SABC 1 TV show, Mi Kasi Su Kasi.
“I started writing the script for Freedom and developing the TV show roundabout the same time,” he says. “Freedom was a spec script [a non-commissioned or unsolicited screenplay], and I had to shop it around. I could not get any funding in South Africa because apparently, it was too big, too dark, too artsy and too deep for the South African audience.
“It’s funny that the South African audience is being undermined because we have always been curious and smart people. It’s a shame that audiences are given below-par content because apparently, it’s what ‘works. But there was a time when we had high-art and boundary-pushing TV shows like Yizo-Yizo, Gaz’ Lam, Intersexions etc. And they are still being talked about today. So I believe that there is room for diverse content.”
Despite failing to attain funding for the film in SA, Jafta would not be deterred. Eventually, the film got funded in the United States (US). “Considering that film is primarily made for young South Africans, I still had to leave the country to have it made.
“On a personal level: this is a well done for me. Especially considering that it was hard to make this happen. I was so broke. You would find people gossiping and asking where you are or whether you have fallen off the wagon. Meanwhile, I put everything into this film to make sure that it gets made.”
With such a lengthy career and having to navigate the ruthless entertainment industry in South Africa, Jafta is still a determined performer. Making that transition from child star to a mature performer is no small feat. Many child stars fail to reach maturity in the industry and, at times, are forced to turn their backs on the dream indefinitely.
“I am fortunate to still be here,” says Jafta with pride. “I have been blessed to have had the opportunities that I have had. And I also have been fortunate enough to have work relationships that have ensured that I get afforded certain opportunities.
“The main thing is: I love and respect my craft. You can see that in the tiny little things that I do: I am never late for work; I respect the people on set (despite the hierarchy) – you treat people how you want to be treated.”
The star says his career has taught him that sometimes rejections are not personal. And as an artist, one must learn to tune out all the negative voices, internally and externally, and focus on the work.
“It took me a while for me to book my first gig. If I had listened to that little nagging voice that said, ‘Clearly people don’t like you, maybe you should give up,’ I would not be sitting here now. Thankfully, another voice told me to ‘toughen up, man. They don’t like you, but the next person will.’
“If you get into it [the industry] for all the right reasons, then you will push and persevere. Hopefully, you will eventually make it. You don’t necessarily have to take everything so personally because it’s art. It’s subjective. As long as your heart is in it, never be deterred.”
Despite the ever-changing entertainment industry, one thing is still prevalent, and that’s the lack of jobs. While new platforms are being created for local content, penetrating the industry is still a real struggle.
“Let’s be honest: It’s rough out there,” adds Jafta. “The industry is over-saturated and so small.
“The one thing that has carried me forward, no matter the circumstance is ‘the vision’. The vision has always been there. It’s present even in my darkest moments.
“If the industry is stressful for me, at the best of times, I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who is still starting. Even with a great work ethic, there is no guarantee of success because there are still so many hoops you have to jump through to start working. That is why it’s not lost on me, how fortunate I have been because it’s not easy.”
As for the future, Jafta says he is excited that Freedom is available exclusively on DStv BoxOffice till September. However, he is also working on getting the film on some of the leading streaming services.
He also shares that all he wants to do at the moment is to make more movies. “I love making movies,” he beams. “I become a different person once the cameras are on. I am generally a reserved person; who keeps to himself. But when I am on set, I get to become anyone or any character. It’s cathartic for me.
“I want to make more projects that are exciting and that I believe in. I want to tell stories that reassure young people that someone sees them.”