Maseko was born in exile in 1967. Educated in Swaziland and Tanzania, he joined Umkhonto We Sizwe, the armed sector of the African National Congress, in 1987. After moving to the United Kingdom, he graduated from the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield in 1994. Maseko's first film was the documentary Dear Sunshine, released in 1992. He fought apartheid in several countries.
He moved to South Africa in 1994 and wrote The Foreigner, a short fiction film about xenophobia in this country. In 1996, after Maseko drove to his house, an unknown assailant pointed a gun at the director and fired twice. He fled after the gun did not fire. A few minutes later, he called his house, and the assailant was on the phone. He "thought [Maseko was] a foreigner. We are a vigilante group going around killing foreigners. We don't want them here."
In 1998 he directed The Life and Times of Sarah Baartman, a 53-minute documentary film about a woman named Sarah Baartman in colonial times. Set between 1810 and 1815, the documentary relates the true story of a 20-year-old woman travelling to London from Cape Town and addresses the taboo themes of racial inferiority and black female sexuality. The woman is taken to France in 1814 and from then on became a subject of scientific investigation. Maseko's cinematic techniques were employed to depict the woman as a sub-human species, emphasising the racial prejudice against black Africans in Europe during imperialist times. After her death, her sexual organs and brain were displayed in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris until as recently as 1985. Critically acclaimed, it garnered many awards including Best African Documentary, 1999 at the Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO), Best Documentary at the 1999 Milan African Film Festival and an award at the 2001 African Literature Association Conference Film Festival.
Other short films by Maseko include The Return of Sarah Baartman, Children of the Revolution, and A Drink in the Passage, all released in 2002. The latter won the Special Jury Award at FESPACO.
His first feature film was Drum, released in 2004. Set in 1950s Johannesburg, it tells of the magazine of the same name and specifically focuses on Henry Nxumalo, a journalist fighting apartheid. He received the top prize at FESPACO, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga, in addition to a cash prize of 10 million CFA francs (US$20,000) at its closing ceremony in 2005, the first South African to do such.
The filmmaker is currently working on the television series Homecoming, following the adventures of three freedom fighters trying to fit in with the rest of South Africa. Maseko is also working on Liverpool Leopard, which is to be his second feature film.
- The Foreigner (1997)
- The Life and Times of Sara Baartman (1998)
- The Return of Sarah Baartman (2002)
- Children of the Revolution (2002)
- A Drink in the Passage (2002)
- Drum (2004)
- Dembrow, Michael. "DRUM". Portland Community College. Retrieved 2008-10-09.
- "Who's Who at FESPACO: Zola Maseko". British Broadcasting Corporation. BBC World Service. Retrieved 2008-10-09.
- Elie, Lois Eric (2008-07-11). "'Foreigner' could teach many of us". The Times-Picayune (NewsBank). p. 1. Retrieved 2008-11-26.
- "The Life and Times of Sarah Baartman:"The Hottentot Venus"". Icarus Films. Retrieved 2008-10-09.
- Knight, James; Manson, Katrina (2005-03-05). "South African Wins Africa's Top Film Prize". Reuters (The Washington Post). Retrieved 2008-10-09.