Youth Month: Art as activism

19 June 2024 | Story Kamva Somdyala. Read time 4 min.
Zolani Balekwa. <b>Photo</b> Lerato Maduna.
Zolani Balekwa. Photo Lerato Maduna.

At the age of 19, Zolani Balekwa has been able to turn personal strife into art, which culminated into establishing his own production house, while honing his skills at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) community engagement video training programme, Stepping Stone.

Balekwa, the director of Artivism Productions, explained that his relationship with storytelling can be traced to his childhood. “I grew up in a divided home. There was no unity in the household. Growing up wasn’t a pleasant experience so I would write out my feelings of anger on paper,” he said. It was by chance that he accompanied a friend to Guga S’Thebe, in KwaLanga, Cape Town, where he got his first opportunity to recite a poem in 2019. “After wowing the crowd on the day with a monologue, the arts journey had well and truly started. After immersing myself in poetry, I found that I was able to control my anger.”

A film director, writer, and producer with a focus on community activism and what he refers to as “artivism”, Balekwa focuses on mentoring young children and opening art opportunities and safe spaces for them to practise their art. He also wishes to show young kids that you need not only be a doctor or a lawyer, but being an artist is also a possibility.


“The Emthonjeni Heritage Film Festival came around and following from it, I was offered financial backing to produce my own work.”

Their focus, said Balekwa, is on producing authentic African stories. “Our passion lies in educating young people] about African lineage … we also take on board both those with formal education and those without to show off their skills and co-create through a programme called Filmmakers Corner, where we invite different township filmmakers to gather at Guga S’Thebe and have conversations about filmmaking.” This encompasses after school programmes for the youth and collaboration with organisations around Cape Town.

For Balekwa, things moved quickly in 2019: “The Emthonjeni Heritage Film Festival came around and following from it, I was offered financial backing to produce my own work. I produced one called Ithongo. That was followed by a film called Uqhawuka kwe Camagu: this was something done by first-time filmmakers (from editor to cinematography to actors). After its release last year in July, we hosted a screening at Bertha House in Mowbray, and it earned a nomination in a youth film festival in Kimberley (Mbawula Youth Film Festival).”

Transforming resources

He then enrolled for UCT’s Stepping Stone five-week course – which he completed last year – to add to his skillset. “It was a great platform. The people I met there I keep in touch with to this day. The way I prepared myself for the course was on a clean slate because firstly it’s UCT and secondly, it was a big learning curve for me when it came to documentary ethics: how to treat your staff and building your relationship with people you interview,” he explained.

“I enjoy telling stories in an authentic way. Our stories need to be told by us in a way that serves us. I want there to be a sense of pride in, for example, the telling of isiXhosa stories, for people watching it to feel a connection to the storytelling.”

Zolani Balekwa is comfortable behind and in front of the camera. Photos Lerato Maduna; Supplied.

Speaking from a mentorship perspective, Marion Seymour, a producer at Stepping Stone, had high praise for her former mentee: “The team Zolani worked with is an intense one. Zolani is a remarkable character because he is aware of his strengths, and he plays towards them. He isn’t afraid of what he doesn’t know. He takes what he knows and runs with it. He isn’t afraid to ask for advice. He comes across as quiet, but once you listen to him, you’ll find out he’s truly passionate about art and I like that he uses art as an activism platform. He looks at opportunity more than struggle.”

Touching on the Stepping Stone programme, Seymour said, “I would encourage people to join because it allows people from different backgrounds to come together and share their experiences and gives people an opportunity to engage in conflicts to help them grow as a person and challenge the status quo while imparting hard skills to produce art.”

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Youth Month 2024

Youth Month 2024

In celebration of Youth Month, UCT News will feature profiles of young individuals from the University of Cape Town (UCT) community who are making meaningful contributions to positive change in South Africa. June is a significant month in the country, marking the commemoration of the tragic events of 16 June 1976, when hundreds of young people lost their lives protesting against unjust education policies.




“The windows of opportunity are open, it’s up to you to use them wisely.”
John Singbae II, LLM candidate specialising in international law at the University of Cape Town


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