Hailing from Soshanguve, a township in Pretoria, Sibusiso Khwinana is no stranger to storytelling. Having received training from the State Theatre, Sibusiso wrote his first script in 2014, a theatre play titled ‘Amend’, which won awards for Best Production and Best Script at the State Theatre. After staging other productions such as ‘Don’t Start’ and registering a Non-Profit Organization called Blank Page Productions and being a founding member of The Independent Theater Makers, at just twenty-five years old, Sibusiso had solidified his place as a playwright and theatre director to be reckoned with. Matwetwe serves as his debut into film, where he effortlessly portrays Lefa; a young man hustling to raise money to pursue a degree in Botany at Wits University.
” I’m definitely not famous. People recognize me more when I’m with Tebatso. But when I’m alone, they just stare, uncertain. I don’t like the spotlight so I’m okay with that.”
How did you discover your love for theatre?
In high school, I studied Mechanical Engineering. It was only in my matric year, upon stumbling into the State Theatre, that I realized where my true passion lies. I would save some money during the week so that I could visit the State Theatre every Saturday. I didn’t tell my parents in fear that they would disapprove. When the year came to an end, I lied to my parents and told them that I had applied to Tshwane University of Technology to study Mechanical Engineering and my application had been unsuccessful, so we had to find an alternative. When Youth in Trust (YIT) held auditions at the State Theatre, they already knew how passionate I was about drama since I went there so often. That’s how I got to study drama there for two years.
How was life after graduating from the State Theater?
It was hard. It reached a point where there were less and less auditions for me to attend. That’s when I realized that I had to start creating roles, not just for myself, but for my peers as well. They were also experiencing the same hardships. I started writing in 2014 and staged my first production a year later. The play was called Amend, it was based on homophobia and corrective rape. I wanted to create a platform where we can engage on issues African societies often don’t want to acknowledge. It was the first production I ever took to the Grahamstown Arts Festival and it was received quite well. People started to recognize me as a writer and director.
Please tell us about being a founding member of the Independent Theater Makers movement. How did that come about?
The Independent Theater Makers is an organization born from difficult circumstances. Staging a production was still very challenging. Searching for funding was exhausting and depressing. So, as a collective of theatre-makers, we got together and formed this movement. We established a space nobody was using in an old fire station in Pretoria. We call it the Station Theater. With just some lights and seats, we made a fully functional theatre.
Every month, we each contribute money so that we can stage productions and host festivals in that space. It’s like a stokvel. It’s an initiative to alleviate the financial burdens of staging a production as we don’t require booking fees to use the space. Any young person with a good production can just come stage the play at the State Theatre, free of charge, and we’ll share in the ticket sales. We have received great support from the public, either by donating or purchasing tickets. We really appreciate it.
The play ‘Don’t Start’ has themes centred around drug abuse. What inspired you to write it?
Growing up in Soshanguve, I witnessed a lot of talented people struggle with drug abuse and eventually give in. It really bothered me. Nyaope was extremely popular and showed no signs of slowing down, so I wrote ‘Don’t Start’ as a means to raise awareness. We took the play to primary schools in Soshanguve and Mamelodi. I wanted to show the young kids how much harder it is to break away from a drug once you’ve started using it and hopefully deter them from experimenting. It was an educational theatre piece and I hope it made an impact on at least one young person’s life.
At that point, you had established yourself as a theatre writer and director. How did you land the role of Lefa?
I was really surprised when Bongani Masango, who I knew from my time at the State Theatre, called me to tell me about the auditions. People don’t know me as an actor. When I arrived at the auditions and saw Kagiso Lediga, that’s when I realized that this could be something big. It wasn’t a typical audition where you’re expected to present a monologue. We all came in at the same time, about fifty of us and sat around a huge round table. We were then asked to introduce and tell the group a little about ourselves. When it was my turn to speak, I started preaching about how I can write and direct, hoping that they would offer me a job as an assistant director or something. We expected there to be another leg to the auditions but they told us that they would get back to us. I think with that process, they were looking for personalities to make the story as authentic as possible. A few days later, we workshopped a script and began shooting. It all happened very fast. I wasn’t confident in my acting abilities and was pleasantly surprised when I was cast alongside Tebatso as the lead.
How difficult or easy has your transition been from theatre to film?
I was insecure with my acting when I was cast but Kagiso Lediga made everything as easy as possible. It was challenging, I must say, especially because there was no script. Imagine having to worry about what your character is going to say next while also remaining present in the moment. It takes a lot to believe in a character and to sustain that belief throughout shooting. When you are in it, you can feel it. And when you are not, you can also feel it. Feeling like you are not in it is scary. However, I believe that being able to work under all that pressure has helped me grow as an actor.
What are the dynamics of working in theatre vs working in film?
In theatre, you can physically play the character, but in film, you are told to tone down the performance to make it as natural as possible. The character Lefa is very close to who I am as a person and that didn’t make it any easier. Sometimes I struggled to find the difference between us. I didn’t know if I was still within myself or I was in character. It reached a point where I felt I wasn’t performing at all. But after seeing it on the frame, I understood the different techniques one must apply for camera in comparison to those we use on stage. With the support of cast and crew, I learnt a lot in a short amount of time. We only shot for eight days. I’m really grateful for the role as I trust myself so much more now as an actor than I did before.
What ripple effects has the success of Matwetwe had in your life?
The success of Matwetwe has been overwhelming. And the support it’s received has been inspiring. In fact, after working on the movie, I was so inspired that I decided to go back to school to pursue a diploma in Film and Television. I’m currently in my second year at TUT. I feel a sense of duty to tell our stories and Matwetwe has introduced me to the medium of film as a means to achieve my goals.
Matwetwe has also helped establish a lot of relationships. Tebatso and I knew each other from the State Theatre, but we weren’t close friends. Since the film, we’ve worked a lot together and have become really close. I have directed quite a number of his plays. There are also so many other connections that I made on and off set that I’m hoping will materialize into meaningful work for me. Most importantly, Matwetwe has given me hope. We often doubt ourselves as artists, especially because the industry is so unpredictable. This movie has shown me that, although having a big budget would be nice, not having one doesn’t mean you can’t reach your goals. You must start with what you have. When I graduate, I’m planning to make lots and lots of great South African stories to share with the world.
Tell us something we don’t know about you.
I am very shy, to the point that I missed an SABC news interview. I said I’m not available because I just wasn’t ready for a television interview. I don’t like being the centre of attention, I want my work to speak for me. I appreciate platforms like this because they are helping me to open up. I also love seeing something develop from scratch. That’s why I’m studying to become a director and producer. There is so much to learn when given the opportunity to be part of a project from its inception. It also means that you can take full pride in the project.
So what does the future hold for Sibusiso Khwinana?
I am hoping that there is another acting role for me in the near future. So I’ll be attending as many auditions as I can. I have also just attended the script reading for ‘Portraits of Age’, a theatre piece that I adapted from a Greek play. Basically, the story follows a young painter under the mentorship of a veteran painter. The young man is so talented that he even scares his master. The youth feel that older people don’t want to pass the baton. Whether it’s the #openuptheindustry, or in politics, this is a conversation we are having. That’s why I think the play is perfect to stage for a South African audience. As The Independent Theater Makers, we have so many amazing projects planned for the Station Theater. We will be hosting a theatre festival called SONA (State Of the Nation Address) ahead of the next general elections where we will be staging politically themed plays. We also just want to facilitate conversations around politics for young people so that they can think independently and make an informed decision when voting.