24 Feb A Chat With Mpho Twala, Director at Velocity Afrika
I was introduced to Mpho shortly after my interview with Monareng and true to Monarengs’ description the man is infectious. One can’t help but feel at ease around him. For the interview, Mpho and I met for breakfast at one of Johannesburg’s beloved café’s, Warm & Glad in Craighall Park.
Your website mentions the strategic/business reasons for focusing on just the continent namely, “the increasing number of clients demanding productions with an increased level of creativity and because of the surge of local agencies getting more and more African clients.” Is there a more romantic notion that motivated the two of you? I couldn’t help but feel a Pan African inspiration there.
Can I quickly look up what Pan Africanism means? (Mpho jokes)
Tell me about how you got here then. Your journey to becoming a director?
In my 2nd or 3rd year of law I just dropped out. One day I just said fuck it. I told my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, what I had done and she got me a job making tea on Egoli. I was making R50 a day and thought shit I’m in the money. My parents didn’t know I had dropped out. I’d wake up every morning at 7am. I left home with a school bag and I would get back after my parents were asleep. I hadn’t been attending school for 9 months before my parents found out. That was only because they wanted my results and after 3 months of excuses the truth eventually came out.
I then ended up living in Belgium for 6 years. I asked my employer of the time when they planned to invite me overseas because I had never been. And one day he called me up saying he had a ticket for me that expired in a week and asked whether I was coming? I told my wife the Monday afternoon and by the Wednesday I was on a flight to Belgium. After my first week there they offered me a full time job. I told my wife that I’d be back home in 2 months to get her and the kids so that they could come live with me and she was like, ok cool. So I did just that. I went back home in 2 months and got my wife and kids. We lived in Belgium and every white person I met was like “oh you’re from Africa that’s so cool. Have you been to Zimbabwe? Have you been to Malawi? Have you been to…? And have you been to…? And my answer was always no, no, no, no.
I had been to most of Europe and when I came back down for my brothers wedding and realized my kids can’t speak Zulu, they could hardly speak English and only spoke Flemish and French. It was weird, my kids couldn’t relate to their cousins. 2 weeks after we got back to Belgium my wife’s father passed away and so she had to go back to SA and after that trip, the day she landed back in Belgium she said she wanted to go back home. I told her I felt the same way. We came back and started afresh. I reconnected with Monareng and we started Calash with Peter who then left for the US. When Peter was here we got lots of business, when Peter left, the white face of our company, we didn’t. We tried to partner up with other directors but we eventually decided to keep it as just the two of us.
I directed my first music video for TKZEE and everyone thought it was cool but I didn’t want to just shoot ads for the sake of shooting ads. I think I have a lot of black kid growing up in white suburbia angst. I wanted to let people know that we were the same. As black kids of our generation we have a moral obligation to portray our people in the correct light and at the time if you were shooting an ad that featured a black person they were usually a builder. If he was too aspirational he wouldn’t be relatable. This is something we dealt with a lot. I once pitched on a job, I can’t tell you the name, but in my treatment I said the black guy who was 28 would have a Vespa, an iPhone, an iPad and they would live in a nice apartment. Agency cut me down asking if he could really afford a scooter and wouldn’t he rather be doing this.
At this point Mpho lifts his fore finger up, which is the taxi symbol for town.
What do you believe you have to offer your clients that they can’t simply get “locally”?
I bring the back up of Velocity. Velocity has had 21 years worth of experience in the game. So production value is really the one thing that’s been lacking with most of the work coming out of the rest of the continent. Because the budget is USD20 000 or USD40 000 people treat it as just USD20 000 and they don’t try do the best that they can with the little money there is.
Having started a company we know how to make 5cents look like R500. That’s the one thing we do differently. When you do a job the budget should never be an excuse, you’re only as good as your last job so if you’re going to take something on you should do it to the best of your capabilities. So what do I bring? I bring production value, I bring the knowledge that I have gained when I was living abroad. I’ve also travelled the continent and I’ve taken what I can from there. We’ve made friends and we cross reference whatever we’re working with those friends. We also have better crew and better equipment.
Business in Africa comes with its own sets of challenges and stereotypes. What have been your challenges?
Wherever you go you should look at your surroundings and use what exists to make it work. It is what it is. Time is the one issue that I have and traffic is the other issue but that’s because Nigeria has like a 175 million human beings and most of them saturated within Lagos so there will be traffic. Infrastructure is infrastructure. They have not had time and money to develop it. At the end of the day I am lucky enough to be able to afford a flight to get there and having some body believe in me enough to shoot something for their brand that speaks to however many million people. Its not really in me to complain because I don’t have the right to complain. I can complain at home but you can’t get out of here and start complaining elsewhere. It’s a lack of respect and I always try to operate from a place of respect.
In hindsight how do you feel about the decision to focus on just producing & directing commercials from just the continent?
It’s a double-edged sword. I’m saddened because we don’t do as much work on the continent at the moment. We do a lot of work here. We often have to make things look like they’re in Nigeria but that’s Agencies being economical and thinking of how to make as much money as possible. You also have Clients who are not thrilled with the idea of shooting in Nigeria. They fall inlove with the idea of it but when they really start thinking about it they often reconsider.
Part of your vision is to nurture and develop aspirant directors in the region. How have or do you intend to do this?
You see this is what happens when you don’t write your own blurbs, its dangerous.
People ask if I want to mentor, I don’t think that I can mentor. I don’t make the young guys that come in here do my research. I treat them as my equals as much as I can because the only way that you will learn is if someone gives you something on your plate so that you can make your mistakes but also at the same time we eat off the same plate. So we do mentor but its in working together. Sometimes I let them direct a small scene. They’ll do it a particular way then I’ll show them my way and in between they’ll find how they want to work.
Mentor means grow with right? Rather then teach. My experience of teaching is from school which was quite a totalitarian type of instruction. I can’t tell anybody what to do especially somebody over the age of 18 and who’s not my child. I can work with you.
How would you describe Monareng.
Monareng is the headmaster. He has the vision and the drive. You believe in a headmaster’s principles and ethos. But once you throw all of that jargon out of the window he’s a good person that you feel safe with. But like every relationship, if you don’t fight it means that someone is not being honest. We’ve been through ultra highs and ultra lows but that’s what friendship is, you work it out. I wouldn’t want to be on this journey with anybody other then Monareng.
The two are almost clichédly complimentary. You have Mpho’s exuberant nature next to Monarengs pragmatic character and to loosely quote Monareng, it’s a fine balancing act only made possible by their longstanding friendship and partnership.
For more on Velocity Afrika you can visit their website here.