How Kagiso Lediga became the most sought-after filmmaker in South Africa

As a teenager in drama school in Cape Town in the 1990s, Kagiso Lediga was bored by the heavy focus on theatre and Shakespeare in the curriculum. For a teenager who had grown up in Pretoria, he thought he had seen far more interesting things.

Lediga’s mum trained as a nurse but was a hustler who was always hawking all kinds of secondhand items on the side. His father worked as a manager for a transport company and then as an insurance salesman. As a kid, Lediga would often accompany his father as he knocked on doors.

“People would offer us tea and biscuits while we listened to their stories,” he recalls. “No disrespect to my dad but in my head, selling insurance became the backup plan for my life if every other thing I was interested in failed.”

Eventually, he dropped out of school. But these days, Lediga, now one of Africa’s most prolific comedians and filmmakers wishes that he’d taken school a bit more seriously, even if he doesn’t regret his decision.

“Looking back, I should have appreciated the training a bit more but at the time I thought it was s***, certainly not the Spike Lee stuff that I wanted,” he tells Al Jazeera.

To a large swath of South African audiences, the 45-year-old is a veteran of standup comedy, and the brain behind the short-lived but culturally resonant variety hit, The Pure Monate Show, that ran from 2003-2004. To a later group of fans, he is an actor and filmmaker, whose vision gave birth to the coming-of-age drama, Matwetwe, in 2017 and the romantic comedy, Catching Feelings, the following year. Following a berth in local theatres, Catching Feelings was the first South African film to stream globally on Netflix.

The positive response to that film led Lediga to his biggest audience yet.

In 2018, Netflix was looking to launch its original programming on the continent and was engaging with local filmmakers. Lediga immediately pitched the story of a female spy travelling across the continent hunting down bad guys and state secrets. This idea became the six-episode Queen Sono, a colourful, country-hopping spy thriller with Pearl Thusi in the titular role.

Lediga believes Queen Sono was the perfect show for a global brand like Netflix to make its presence felt on the continent.

“With streamers, there has been a lot of trial and error and I commend Netflix because they have been groundbreaking in that regard,” he tells Al Jazeera via Zoom from New York. “Trying to figure out content for a diverse continent such as ours is tough. And with Queen Sono that was always on our minds. We have 1.5 billion people in this space, and this chick from Johannesburg navigating these complexities. It was a window into these different cultures.”

Netflix loved Queen Sono until it didn’t.

In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, the show was cancelled unceremoniously, reversing an earlier decision to renew it for a second season. Lediga admits he was disappointed and would love to return to that world if handed an opportunity, “Queen Sono opened a lot of doors. I still think it is an awesome idea and would like to see a film. It is a fun world and if the stars align, maybe we can do one or two movies just to wrap things up properly.”

In the meantime, he has continued to work with Netflix on a slate of other projects through the production company Diprente that he co-runs with his partner, Tamsin Andersson. Classified, a young adult drama about a high school student who moves from California to Johannesburg and becomes caught up in international espionage is licensed to Netflix for the Africa region, debuting on the platform in November last year. The show, a co-production with American partners, has Lediga serving as creator, writer, showrunner, and lead director and will stream on Amazon Freevee in the United States sometime this year.

Lediga and Andersson are also life partners who have a teenage son. They met in 2004 and started dating almost immediately. Their working relationship started six years later when Andersson joined Lediga to produce the Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola, South Africa’s answer to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Coincidentally, Trevor Noah, who worked the standup circuit with Lediga would be named host of The Daily Show years later.

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