Lindani Nkosi plays Malcolm Phiri, a man on a mission to rescue his zama zama brother
Lindani Nkosi plays Malcolm Phiri, a man on a mission to rescue his zama zama brother
Masoja Msiza as Oliver, the downtrodden miner in Zama Zama
Masoja Msiza as Oliver, the downtrodden miner in Zama Zama

THE plight of miners has been highlighted with the death of 34 striking Lonmin miners at Marikana in North West, who were protesting against low wages.

The coincidental release of the mine thriller, Zama Zama, sparked some natural curiosity about the harsh conditions faced by those colloquially known as “zama zamas”, or illegal miners.

I soon discovered that the movie was not about miners per se, but about the damaged relationship between two brothers.

The underrated actor Lindani Nkosi plays Malcolm Phiri, the older brother and successful businessman who holds interests in mining. Presley Chweneyagae, of Tsotsi fame, portrays the central character and younger brother, Joseph Phiri.

Malcolm discovers that Joseph is a zama zama at the mine that Malcolm owns and that the mine will soon undergo a raid.

Malcolm must save Joseph from the raid. It is not clear to the audience what the consequence will be. Jail? A fine? But ultimately, we understand that Malcolm’s mission to save Joseph will involve rebuilding their fractured relationship by restoring trust and respect between the brothers.

The relationship between Malcolm and Joseph is multi-layered, but we only see in a flashback scene that the younger Joseph was left behind by Malcolm for some reason unknown to the audience.

Joseph also feels resentment that Malcolm became a secure and self-sufficient businessman while he ended up as a struggling miner.

A question comes to mind: how could two young men from a “lower middle-class” family end up as polar opposites? In the movie, we see their modest township home. It was, however, not a home of abject poverty. It seems a bit unrealistic that someone like Joseph would choose such a hard life given his decent background and the many opportunities available post-1994.

Manto, played by Khulu M Skenjana, portrays the ruthless zama zama cartel boss. Upon discovering that Joseph and the other zama zama miners have been rescued from the raid by Malcolm, Manto goes ballistic and goes on a manhunt to track down Malcolm and Joseph. He takes their loved ones hostage and Malcolm and Joseph must unite to free the various family members.

Eventually, Malcolm and Joseph defeat Manto, rescue the hostages and everything ends well with the brothers bonding blissfully. It doesn’t get more clichéd than this.

Zama Zama is a debut effort for writer-director Vickus Strijdom, whose screenwriting needs further development in storytelling. He often shoots empty scenes without providing a clear context. For instance, there is a gumboot dancing scene which has little relevance to the storyline.

In addition, he could have given more depth to the story had he spent more effort building character and dialogue. The manner in which the story is portrayed comes across as superficial and seems almost to trivialise the conditions in which the zama zamas are routinely exploited. For instance, when one listens to Hugh Masekela’s Stimela, one understands the storytelling better – and the fact that mining is a long, arduous task.

A second misgiving is the fact that the film is classified as a thriller. I was never kept on the edge of my seat.

As a director, Strijdom fails to create a mood of urgency or the sense of a ticking time bomb. For instance, when the raid occurs in the mine, there isn’t even a dog hunting down the zama zamas.

Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to classify Zama Zama as a mine drama.

Irrespective of the limited script and its shortcomings, most of the actors were well cast and managed to make the most of their characters.

Nkosi’s character, Malcolm, proved to be endearing in the end and he was the only character who had visible transformation.

I hope Strijdom and his production house, Kokamoya Productions, will in future projects endeavour to produce well-developed films for South African and global audiences.