28 Up South Africa – TV review

Haunted by disease and death, the fourth visit to the 'children' of the post-Apartheid era is a hymn to the human spirit

Michael Apted's Up series of documentaries which return to the same group of children every seven years throughout their lives has been retooled for numerous countries and last night in 28 Up South Africa (ITV1) we caught up with the children there. They turned seven in 1992, two years after Mandela was released from prison, making them first-hand witnesses to the country under and since his presidency.

In many ways, the Up projects are more like geological studies than sociological research. The cores of the people involved stay the same – the rest is shaped by time and the different pressures brought to bear on them.

Willem, a cheerful, stolid boy, is now a cheerful, stolid Springbok and household name, married to his university sweetheart who is expecting their first child. The boy who planned to beat up the black students due to arrive at his just-desegregated school until he met them and realised that "they are very good people, I didn't expect that" has, thanks to that exposure and perhaps also to his insulation from the resentments felt by his Afrikaner compatriots over the country's changes, matured along the best lines.

Lizette is the same brusquely forthright soul now threatening to curdle into bitterness after a brutal divorce battle, money troubles and business worries aggravated by the crumbling of South Africa's infrastructure – or at least of the infrastructure of the South Africa she knew. "Everything has changed since I was seven. Money … used to be allocated correctly; it used to be spent correctly. Now everything has gone haywire." Though she described Mandela as having been a good president ("His vision was not wrong. It just never happened"), she was the only one who you felt might, if pushed, give vent to some of the more toxic elements still to work their way out of the country's system. Whether it was fair or unfair, honest or dishonest, of the film-makers not to push her I cannot decide.

The decision of Katlego's football-star father to use his money to send his son to St George's, an elite, private, overwhelmingly white school has paid the dividends he hoped for. Katlego has a good job as a market analyst, has good friends and moves in comfortable circles. How much he has lost in the process depends on how much store you put in staying true to your roots and how much you read into the downcast eyes of the seven-year-old Katlego just after he had left his Soweto home for St George's.

Olwethu's childhood ebullience and determination have found the perfect match in Welile, her pastor husband. They are happy, although she says she is "more frustrated now than when I was at seven because then we were told who was the enemy. Now who's the enemy? Things are not getting better, but who's to blame?". They have two children ("the joy of my life"), a new business and are deeply enmeshed, via their church roles, in their community. Until, that is, a violent dispute with a local mob results in death threats for Welile, and they have to flee the home they have so painstakingly built. As we leave them, it is impossible to imagine that their collective fortitude won't allow them to start anew, and perhaps with even greater success, elsewhere.

The poorest participant, who grew up in a hostel for immigrant workers and whose seven-year-old self "hated getting shot at for no reason", now owns a shack next to the hostel. Luyanda has three children with three different women and he is continually passed over at work by a boss who prefers to promote mixed-race rather than black people. His girlfriend – "I tried my utmost not to let her down, because I loved her" – was stabbed near their home and died in his arms as he carried her to the hospital. She still visits him in his dreams and walks away as if she will be back soon. And he waits for her until he wakes up. His best friend, Andiswa, who grew up with him in the hostel and appeared – a laughing, open-faced young woman – with him in previous programmes, died of Aids three years ago. The older women of her family talk about her and the daughter she left behind with expressions that suggest they have seen both too much and not enough.

Widespread violence and disease, pernicious inequality, overt and covert racism, cronyism, and the rest of the howling winds of massive cultural and political upheaval buffeted everyone. It will take a lot to knock a Springbok over; much less to damage Luyanda in his shack. Let us hope that they are all still standing in another seven years.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
63 Up review – documentary marvel makes all other reality TV look trivial
Michael Apted’s groundbreaking seven-yearly series returns, seeming more dreamlike than ever as it follows its subjects into retirement and beyond

Lucy Mangan

04, Jun, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Oti Mabuse: My South Africa review – proof that TV has the power to educate like no other medium
The Strictly star returns to the township near Pretoria where she grew up, bringing a light and upbeat touch to issues of racial injustice that occasionally leave a chill in the air

Jack Seale

17, Nov, 2022 @10:00 PM

Article image
Africa with Ade Adepitan review – at last, a diverse BBC travel show
The Lagos-born Paralympian takes us on a moving odyssey across Africa, starting in Senegal. Thank goodness the BBC have moved on from the endless procession of white presenters in ‘colourful’ foreign lands

Chitra Ramaswamy

03, Feb, 2019 @10:00 PM

Article image
TV tonight: Britain's future gets even grimmer in Years and Years
Populism reaches Westminster in Russell T Davies’s turbulent ‘what if’ drama. Plus Michael Apted’s monumental documentary series returns with 63 Up. Here’s what to watch this evening.

Phil Harrison, David Stubbs, Graeme Virtue, Mike Bradley and Paul Howlett

04, Jun, 2019 @5:19 AM

Article image
The Musketeers – TV review
Sam Wollaston: This swashbuckling romp will appeal to teenagers dreaming of adventure – and fortysomething TV critics too

Sam Wollaston

20, Jan, 2014 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Betrayers – TV review
Sam Wollaston: How well do you know the person sitting next to you on the sofa? These fraud victims all thought they did

Sam Wollaston

03, Jul, 2014 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Call Centre – TV review

Sam Wollaston: Hugs on tap, lots of friendly banter and your PPI sorted – if only all bosses were more like Nev from The Call Centre

Sam Wollaston

05, Jun, 2013 @6:00 AM

Article image
I Bought A Rainforest – TV review
Sam Wollaston: Illegal loggers, shifty Tito and a coca crop – Charlie's 100 acres of rainforest is full of surprises

Sam Wollaston

02, Jun, 2014 @6:00 AM

Article image
Bedlam – TV review

Sam Wollaston: A brilliant insight into obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers' difficult lives sheds light on everyone's personal demons

Sam Wollaston

01, Nov, 2013 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Dealership – TV review
You can learn a lot about selling from James, the lion of the Essex Car Company forecourt, writes Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

02, Aug, 2013 @6:00 AM