FIRST lesson about working underground, says Presley Chweneyagae, is “Wear your helmet”. There’s nothing cool about bumping your head, he said wryly in an interview in Cape Town.

He was in town to talk about a film that was shot three years ago.

“It’s so funny how the issues have resurfaced. It’s coming out of the mine again,” said Chweneyagae.

He’d been reading about illegal miners when he heard about auditions for Zama Zama and he was impressed by director Wickus Strydom’s take on the idea.

“It’s his first feature and he had guts, for us to shoot underground,” he said about the shoot in the Magaliesberg.

The shoot was six weeks long, with almost four weeks spent underground, some of it feeling “like bootcamp”. It was disorienting to go into overtime as they once thought they had emerged in the wrong tunnel when they finished after sunset.

“You have so many tunnels in there and I’d never been underground before. It was quite an experience. Luckily we had the safety guys.

“I pray that when people see the film they see the ensemble work that went into it.

“That place really tests your patience. You’re working in tunnels, it’s confined. There’s nowhere to hide. If you’re having a bad day it was up to all of us to cheer you up.

“The actors, we were a single unit. We spent so much time together and it was up to us to make it work,” he said.

The Pretoria-based actor said he tried to choose acting roles that gave him an opportunity to communicate what is happening in SA at the moment.

“For people to be able to talk about issues that face them. So, I think also with the preparation for the film, you want to channel all of these things into the character.

“So, that’s why I say the environment influences my work.”

Zama Zama was shot before Khalo Matabane’s State of Violence, but he plays the younger brother in both films, which deal with the clash between brothers and ideologies.

“The stories have the same identity, but the design of the character should be very different.

“That’s what I strive for, in all my characters.”

Zama Zama touches on the issues of formalised mining with its strict rules versus the dangers of illegal mining and how two different mindsets drive two brothers apart.

State of Violence also pitted family against each other around the issue of violence perpetrated many years ago. In Matabane’s film a Struggle hero’s violent past has aggressive ramifications in the present .

“After people saw Tsotsi, they thought that I’d be this gangster, all the way. It’s what they expected, so I refused to be put into a particular manner.”

Since Gavin Hood’s film, Chweneyagae has been as likely to pop up on the local stage as he has to take roles in international films


Recently Joburg audiences saw Chweneyagae on stage in the political drama Rhetoric.

He doesn’t differentiate between acting mediums: “The approach is always the same, but obviously the mediums do differ. You have to know exactly what you’re doing at that time. The love stays totally equal.

“With theatre you actually prepare, rehearse a lot and see everything come together on the first day of the performance. When the performance comes, it’s fresh. I think that’s the most amazing thing about it.

“With the film, it’s a different dynamic. It’s almost like a painting, you want to do something that will exist for many years, without losing the commitment.

“I got an e-mail from the UK the other day because they still relate to the movie [Tsotsi] to this day. It’s been seven years. But that’s the point. Making something that will stay there and sustain you for years to come.

“Not just one film, but to be able to do work that lives. That’s the vision when it comes to my work,” said Chweneyagae.