I first met Zola in Johannesburg, in 2001, and he was already a local hero. He'd recently left the hit South African TV drama Yizo Yizo in which he'd been starring as a township thug called Papa Action. Both in terms of subject matter and styling, Yizo Yizo was very much the television precursor to Gavin Hood's Oscar-winning Tsotsi, the film that looks sure to make Zola's star shine internationally.
Shot on location, in the Johannesburg township of Daveyton, Yizo Yizo, like Tsotsi, employed washed out, almost sepia-tinged lighting and told similar stories of young people's daily struggles against crime and poverty (think City of God meets Grange Hill). It ran for several successful series but it was never quite the same after Zola/Papa Action left.
I caught up with Zola in the back of a clapped-out Citroën speeding between TV interviews, through the streets of Johannesburg. Like many self-respecting soap stars, Zola was on the verge of releasing a debut album, Umdlwembe.
I'd yet to hear it, but the word was already out that it was a sure-fire winner and that Zola himself was a larger-than-life charismatic and a pop star in the making. But, in person, I found him thoughtful and somewhat diffident. He was dressed in a plain black T-shirt and black jeans, with a simple silver cross at his neck.
His voice barely rose above a mumble as he described his forthcoming album like this: "Whoever goes and buys my CD has to understand that this artist comes from a place where he sees a drunken father beat a mum on the street, where a friend died, where a friend got raped, where a friend got successful and went to college, where a friend died of Aids ... and all of these things make him what he is today. He cannot tell one story and leave the other." It wasn't the kind of fluffy platitude you'd expect to hear from, say, Cheryl Tweedy.
As soon as I listened to Umdlwembe, however, I understood what the fuss was about. It was an album built around the contemporary South African club music, kwaito, a mixture of clean electronic beats pitched like slow-motion house and with a rough hip-hop feel. But what set it apart was the extraordinary magnetism of Zola's vocals as he barked out township tales in a threatening, gravelly monotone, sounding something like a Sowetan DMX. Indeed, it is from a notorious Soweto district that Zola takes his name.
Kwaito is a South African musical phenomenon. After the country's first democratic elections in 1994, it was almost as if the townships of Johannesburg needed a fresh sound that gave voice to their newly-won freedoms. As apartheid crumbled, so the local market had begun to be flooded with international music, notably hip-hop and house. Local producers such as Arthur, Don Laka and Oscar took the protest dancing and chanting of what was known as the toyi-toyi, mixed it with a little half-paced house, a pinch of local pop (called bubblegum and made famous by the likes of Brenda Fassie ) and a dash of hip-hop and they came up with a whole new musical genre.
The formula was the perfect expression of the dawning era, blending city and township, African and Western, modern and traditional into one potent cocktail. And it soon produced its stars too - Boom Shaka, TK Zee, Mandoza ... But none is bigger than Zola.
I ran into Zola again a couple of years later and by this time he was absolutely assured in his celebrity. He was supporting an English literacy project at an orphanage in Hillbrow, downtown Johannesburg, and the kids there could barely contain their excitement. Leaping onto a table and addressing them in a mixture of Zulu and tsotsitaal (street slang), he told them both to value their mother tongue but also to recognise the importance of learning English; even if they wanted to be a rapper like him. How else, he asked, would they be able to read their record contracts? All the kids cheered.
Chatting later, it was apparent how easily he'd slipped into the role of spokesman for a generation. "If you look at South Africa now, we're the most forgiving country in the world. We've been sick to our stomach and now have to kill that sickness without poisoning ourselves further, without civil war. Fortunately, community is very important over here and we were all brought up on the saying 'It takes a whole village to raise a child'." Then he leaned on the upright piano standing against the orphanage wall and cracked a smile. "I always wanted to steal one of these," he said.
In Tsotsi, Zola plays Fela, the brooding senior gangster whose calm charisma counterpoints the frantic, live-for-the-moment nihilism of the eponymous young thug. If Presley Chweneyagae, as Tsotsi, dominates the film with a performance that's a catch-your-breath mixture of brutality and vulnerability, Zola's portrayal of the career criminal as neighbourhood heartbeat is flawlessly pitched. It's arguably a role that was made for him.
Township culture has a long tradition of the "noble thug", or pantsula, the charming Robin Hood figure with a taste for good living and crime, albeit within a community moral code. The pantsula image is one that kwaito has referenced from the start, with its stars often aping pantsula style and slang. But nobody embodies that thug-made-good ethos quite like Zola. These days he even has his own TV show, called Zola Seven, a kind of ghetto Jim'll Fix It in which he makes dreams come true for the nation's disadvantaged.
I last saw Zola in March at Tsotsi's UK premiere. He'd recently flown in from the States where he'd been knee-deep in the Oscars, performing live and appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Apart from starring in Tsotsi, Zola also put together (and performed the majority of) the soundtrack, whose kwaito flavour is a vital part of the film's energy and its authenticity. Now, on the back of the film's success, the plan is to introduce kwaito music to a specifically Western market for the first time.
"Wherever Zola's played, he's always got the audience on their feet," explains Lance Stehr, head of Zola's label, Ghetto Ruff. "So it's time to put out a Zola album in the UK and that's what we're going to do this summer."
I've occasionally wondered why kwaito, a winning combination of pop music and street culture with a club sensibility, hasn't broken in the UK before now. I suspect that the brokers of that nebulous genre "world music" have found it difficult to process such a synthesised sound within their conceptions of what is "truly African". I also suspect that the success of Tsotsi, however, has the door to a mainstream Western market, if not open, at least ajar. And nobody is more ready, willing and able to kick that door down than Zola, a South African phenomenon.