Celebrity travelogues: we have all seen too many of them, so we know the form. Pretty shots from drones and cute animated maps introduce us to a series of locations where people of interest are hailed and well met, while places and their history are summed up too briefly, and glib conclusions about whole countries are drawn with a smile. Oti Mabuse: My South Africa (BBC One) does have a lot of the tics and cliches of the genre but, because of where we are and who we are with, its sweet cosiness is deceptive.
Mabuse is a professional ballroom dancer who won Strictly Come Dancing in 2019 with Kelvin Fletcher, and was then part of one of the show’s loveliest glories by repeating the feat with Bill Bailey the following year. My South Africa, then, is what you might call a “this is where” doc, in which an elite athlete or artist – both at once, in Mabuse’s case – returns to their roots. This is where they were born, this is where they discovered they could do the thing you know them for, this is where they won their first trophy.
So, we pop our heads into the tiny house where Mabuse and her elder sisters lived as children, and see the tall gate she would climb over to sneak out and see friends. We check out the stall where she sold flowers to earn money for dance contests; her godmother still runs it, just as her mother still runs a local nursery. Now, we’re in the theatre where some early dance prizes were claimed, where Mabuse looks at old video footage on a tablet – another well-worn motif of memory-lane shows.
While watching herself as a child performer, Mabuse notices that she and her partner are the only black kids on the dance floor. That this hadn’t occurred to her at the time points to the very specific period in which she grew up. She was born in 1990, the year South Africa made significant moves towards ending apartheid, and the film turns into a meditation on life for black South Africans of that generation: the first to be elevated by a new hope, as doors that had been bolted shut began to open. But getting older means becoming fiercely aware of the injustices their parents and grandparents suffered, not least because many of the old iniquities persist.
As the film widens out to make South Africa its subject alongside Mabuse herself, the surface-skimming vagueness of the celeb travelogue format produces strange results. In the country’s desert interior, where Afrikaners remain dominant – when she was a child, Mabuse would attend competitions there, despite her parents sometimes being afraid to get out of the car – she visits an ostrich farm run by a nice white couple. “They’re the world’s biggest flightless birds; they can run at up to 80 kilometres an hour,” says the wife, informatively, before the husband hands Mabuse a chick to pet. Then Mabuse mentions the campaign to temper the inequality of a small white minority owning a large majority of South African land, by returning property stolen under apartheid. Because the moment is fleeting and the fun documentary smiles stay on, the sudden chill in the air is barely perceptible. But it’s there.
When a celebratory sequence in which Mabuse joins in heartily with the social media dance craze amapiano is followed minutes later by a solemn trip to see Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, My South Africa starts to embody the way television, with its ability to butt high- and low-brow up against each other, and its knack for presenting one thing disguised as another, can educate like no other medium. With the greatest respect to the Strictly Come Dancing audience, such a large fanbase may contain the odd person who would not ordinarily seek out a documentary about the lasting trauma and deep-seated political after-effects of apartheid, but who will tune in for what they think is a jolly travel film by that dancer they like. By the end of My South Africa, they will have an understanding of the nation’s painful racial problems that doesn’t go deep with detail, but does ensure all the main points are firmly underlined.
The film’s most impactful scenes involve Mabuse learning more about what her older relatives went through: her grandparents were forcibly relocated by the government in the 1960s; her mother, Dudu, participated in the Soweto student uprising of 1976 before having children and beginning the long task of maximising their talents to give them a better life. When Dudu’s youngest daughter eventually held a glitterball aloft thousands of miles away, it was the result of an awful lot of work, sacrifice, courage and horribly overdue political change. Oti Mabuse’s ability to keep it light has been hard won.