Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt: A journey from law to animation

Nosipho Article

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Chocolate Tribe, a Johannesburg and Cape Town-based high-end animation and visual effects (VFX) that produces works in the formats of films, television stories, commercials, and extended realities. Their expertise is in visual effects, creature and character animation, compositing, animation direction, on-set supervision, as well as immersive and 360° experiences.  One of their most notable works is a short animated film called Surf Sangoma that is part of Disney’s Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, which is a collection of sci-fi stories themed around a technologically-advanced and futurist Africa. 

Maketo-Van Den Bragt studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand and then a Master of Law at Birkbeck, University of London. She started her professional life as an associate attorney at Webber Wentzel, a legal and project manager at Peotona Group Holdings, and a legal consultant at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr Inc., among other roles. 

As an extension of her animation and visual effects business, she launched the AVIJOZI annual tech festival. It was held from 16 – 17 September this year, at the University of Johannesburg, with a programme that included panel discussions and presentations educating people on the business of animation and fostering inclusion, with speakers that are experts in the field and have great insights. 

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt participated in the IQOQO sessions held in August 2023, to share stories about her time building a business in the animation industry as well as to give insight into why and how she shifted from law to the creative sector. 

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt: I am a mother of three, I am a wife, an admitted attorney, and a writer on an animated series that is currently in development. I am also the CEO and owner of two companies, but my main focus today really is the one company – Chocolate Tribe: an animation and visual effects studio based here in Johannesburg and in Cape Town. 

My role at Chocolate Tribe, as the CEO, is to align artists with their passion and their purpose, to make sure that the environment is conducive and productive, and that people get to where they need to in terms of their careers. 

I have had a very interesting journey in the sense that I didn’t go to art school and I didn’t go to business school. 

I studied a BA and then an LLM in the UK. I stayed there for about 10 years, had a couple of kids, got married, and decided that I wanted to come out to South Africa. 

Coming back to South Africa, I realised that there were so many opportunities in terms of the creative space, and I wanted to harness those opportunities. 

For me, lawyers are creative storytellers, critical thinkers, and advocates for other people. I saw the alignment of the creative space as well as the legal space, and that’s how I came to be the CEO of Chocolate Tribe. 

I did my stint at a very prestigious law firm. And while I was there, I got a backhanded compliment from one of the attorneys who said to me, “you actually don’t belong here, you should be in the creative space.” This began my journey into figuring out what it meant to belong, but it also triggered an imposter syndrome, and this is very important because a lot of us are told we don’t belong either by the way the environment is structured or by the ways in which people treat us in those environments. 

I realised that someone saying that to me was sort of catapulting me into another space, and I wanted to use that sort of negative comment to push myself into new horizons. 

Thus, Maketo-Van Den Bragt resigned from her law firm and exited the law profession with one main objective – to follow a path that connected her to her purpose and passion. 

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt: Being two of us – in the beginning – not trained in business, I harnessed the power of being an attorney. I harnessed the power of advocacy and bringing in people from different walks of life into a space. Nine years later, there are forty of us and we are a thriving business. 

But this journey hasn’t come without struggle, it’s been very long and hard, not for the faint-hearted. 

Even the people in my family circle were concerned when I transitioned from being an attorney to being in the creative space. There were questions like, “What do you mean you’re leaving law and going into a creative space? How are you going to pay your mortgage and your bills?” They said things like, “You need a therapist because there’s something wrong with you.” 

What I noticed about these comments, as much as I understood the concern of parents and of friends wanting to find out why one would leave a very stable career and a space that has a high level of social status and intellectual respect, is that they felt like a moment to change up the creative space and the narrative.

It was important for me to make my family as well as for my community understand that this was the journey and the space I wanted to go into. 

Beyond making her family and friends realise that she was making a decision that was right for her, she had the bigger mission of making the world see professions in the creative sector in a different, more positive light.

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt: Considering all the difficulties and all the challenges that one comes across, I was very clear that I wanted to build a company where creatives were respected, where the artistry of animation or just being in a creative space was seen on par with being an attorney or a banker. 

The biggest thing that I wanted to craft as an ethos at Chocolate Tribe was the mindset that South Africa, and Africa, can churn out amazing work. We can create work that can be viewed internationally, be valued and lauded. 

Although the animation industry did come with some personal struggles to overcome, Maketo-Van Den Bragt was also faced with industry-specific challenges. 

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt: This space, of course, is one that is still very male- and white-dominated. It is a space that has a long learning curve. The software and the artistry have to be learned over a very long time, and a lot of our resources are purchased from overseas. So, it’s not easy to just jump into animation or VFX. 

There is also a shortage of talent and that is why it is important for us to have these conversations about getting as many people into this space. 

In terms of people understanding animation and VFX in its art history, it’s not a space that our community understands. Often when you go into animation, people think you’re sitting and drawing the whole day, and you’re doing ama-popeye. They think it’s not even a job and you are often told to go and get a job. So we’re trying to crack that mentality. 

The other great challenge within animation is the fact that we still do not have ownership or IP of the stories and the products that we produce. So that’s a struggle and something that we have been looking at changing.

Careers in animation and VFX are highly expensive, from the schools to the equipment. It can be exclusive and the barriers to entry are very high. 

In addition to doing what she can at Chocolate Tribe to break down some of these barriers, Maketo-Van Den Bragt has initiated other projects.

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt: What I did in 2022, was to start an event called AVIJOZI (Animation, Visual Effects and Interactive in Jozi), which was meant to break those barriers and get as many people into the space. 

The most important thing that we’re really trying to do is to change the narrative which is embedded within the African context that says that we are consumers and never the producers, and that if we do produce then we produce low-quality assets or products. 

Maketo-Van Den Bragt firmly believes in the strength and future of the animation industry in South Africa. 

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt: The good news about the animation, VFX, and interactive space is the fact that we are thriving. Firstly, we had one studio. We now have two studios – one in Johannesburg, the other one in Cape Town. We have grown from two to forty staff members who are a fairly diverse, young, and energetic group of people. We are growing and we do amazing projects that have been recognised locally and internationally including awards such as Cannes Lions, Ciclope, and Loeries. 

We have been entered into the Guinness Book of Records as having won the most prizes for a sci-fi film called Cognition – it won 383 awards.

We have also worked on the Kizazi Moto Disney anthology. And that has been a huge narrative shift in terms of creating an Africa-specific series that is also largely done by African studios. It is a really amazing show. Go out there and watch it because these stories are about us and were made by us for us. 

On the VFX side of the business, we have been part of great crowd-pleasers like iNumber Number: Jozi Gold, which got over 5 million views in the first three weeks. If you see the hyena when you watch it, it was us who did that and we are very proud.

We have been elevated by our peers as the top VFX house in Africa. And we take that accolade with great humility and pride. 

For me, the biggest win is really the work that we’re doing in the community through AVIJOZI to uplift animation and VFX as a recognised career route. 

And this speaks to how we perceive success – as growing and excelling with our community. Through AVIJOZI, we are creating awareness of opportunities, knowledge, and expertise. We are bringing in other companies, institutions and industry together so we can build this sector. 

And our other form of success is really the fact that I’m here with you guys at IQOQO, in this amazing space and speaking about the African dream being realised, among exceptionally talented women on Women’s Month, and being recognised for the work that I’m doing within animation and VFX. And I’m hoping that it will inspire many of you to go out there and do amazing things.

So I take this as a huge win. 

For Maketo-Van Den Bragt, the industry is primed for a breakthrough and ready to own a piece of a rather large and lucrative pie. 

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt: My personal goal is to continue changing the narrative. If you are a creative, usually, you become seen as the kid at the back of the class who doesn’t quite get what’s happening in class. I am hoping to elevate those kids and put them front and centre of our consciousness. Not only as creatives but as human beings. 

This is a $650 billion industry, and we don’t want to be left out of that. 

I’ve also got this tremendous desire to make sure that the next generation is able to take the baton, to understand that you create your future today. 

I would like the upcoming generation of artists to immerse themselves in understanding and having knowledge about AI because that is going to be the next differentiator. If you don’t know how to use AI, you’re going to be left behind. We want to make sure that we understand how to use those tools so we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we are wondering if AI is taking control. 

Seekers are people who are looking for something beyond the moment and beyond self-gratification. So as entrepreneurs, we are seekers, we are always looking for more than just to feel immediate satisfaction. 

One thing I can tell you is that I’m hugely excited and very optimistic about the future, and the developments that are happening within the creative space. 

And the fact that IQOQO is elevating the voices of women and creators is really part and parcel of that breakthrough journey. 

So what does the future hold for her? What is the next chapter in Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt’s story? 

Nosipho Maketo-Van Den Bragt: The next part of my journey is to make sure that I produce two books, and I’m hoping you guys can hold me accountable to that – one of fiction and one non-fiction book. 

I am very much invested in building our Chocolate Tribe to be a transformative company that proves that artists can make a living out of the space, that thrills audiences and elevates the industry at large. 

I often tell the story of Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings. New Zealand was a country that we beat all the time in rugby, and will do it again this year*. It was the country that was a sheep farming community. It was kind of like an odd place that didn’t place well on the map. Now, because of Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings franchises, it elevated the country to be something phenomenal. Everyone wants to go there and work there because there is a thriving industry and there is respect for the animation VFX space. 

You are often the only one who fully understands your dream and your vision. I think of entrepreneurs as visionaries. They are the people who see beyond and have incredible instincts. 

*After this talk, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup.

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