South African dreams Nelson Mandela could not make real

Moving interviews in '28 Up South Africa' reveal the damning legacy of apartheid

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:51 ON Fri 13 Dec 2013

IN 28 Up South Africa, the fourth instalment of a documentary series that profiles the same group of South Africans every seven years, one article of faith united this painfully disparate cohort: belief in Nelson Mandela as the saviour of his nation.

First broadcast last Wednesday, a little less than 24 hours before he died, this moving series of interviews is available on the ITV Player until the end of the month. It reveals both the breadth of the divide that Mandela was able to bridge, and the limits of his achievement.

The Up series started in the UK in 1964, and comparisons with the original are instructive. Most of the British participants, last seen aged 56, have now settled gracefully into middle-aged contentment. Few of the South Africans seem to be heading in that direction.

Willem, perhaps, comes closest. In 1992, as a seven-year-old Afrikaner farmboy, he vowed to beat up any black boy who dared to turn up at his yet-to-be-integrated school. Seven years later he distanced himself from that reflexive racism. “I was stupid,” he confessed, with an embarrassed grin.

He has not yet bought the game farm he dreamed of as a child, but that seems only a matter of time. Walking on the beach in Durban, bathed in evening sunlight, he describes how he realised his ambition to play international rugby for the Springboks, and, having married his college girlfriend, talks excitedly about the prospect of a first child.  

Katlego was also dealt a good hand, albeit a less straightforward one. As the son of a professional footballer, in 1992 he was the only black boy at an expensive private school, and anxious about his roots. “Do I sound like an African?” he asked, his eyes moistening when the interviewer did not immediately deny it.

Now his integration into the professional class is complete. He has a good job and lives in a wealthy suburb with a white friend - and he has lost all contact with his boyhood circle in Soweto.

His story is not one of pathways converging, but of a bright individual, aided by private wealth, leaping the chasm that divides two parallel tracks. Not even that would have been possible less than a generation ago, but for his old friends, Katlego’s life must seem a distant dream.

While he looks forward in the hope of improvement, others look back. Inevitably the participants self-censor, but one is at least a little nostalgic for the old days. “It was a fully functioning country,” says Lizette, who, having divorced and moved back in with her extended family, seems the most bitter of the group. “Money was allocated correctly. Money was spent correctly.”

Luyanda and Andiswa might well disagree. At seven, they were living in a township hostel on the edge of Cape Town. “I hate getting shot at when I’ve done nothing wrong,” Luyanda said, describing harrassment by the police and casual violence among his peers.

Theirs was always going to be a difficult journey, beginning as it did on the lowest rung of the ladder.

Andiswa, a good student, had seemed the more likely to provide a happy ending, but she is absent from this instalment. “She had lost weight, but I thought it was because she had a newborn baby,” Luyanda explains. “Not long after we heard that she was sick.” Soon it transpires that she has contracted HIV and died - the fourth of the 14 participants to succumb to the virus.

Luyanda is faring little better. He earns the equivalent of £40 a week, with which to support himself and the three children he has with three different women. His most recent girlfriend bled to death in his arms, having been stabbed on her way home from a night out.

The premise of the original 7 Up was that Britain’s class system was so rigid that it would determine how each child lived his or her life. In fact, the fortunes of the British cohort have ebbed and flowed rather unpredictably over the years. The legacy of apartheid, 20 years after its abandonment, is proving more persistent and more prescriptive.

Without Mandela, this programme and the lives it described would undoubtedly have been yet bleaker and more violent. Even so, he surely would have been saddened by it. · 

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Apartheid was more than a set of written policies, it was a carefully waged warfare that was so much more than "black versus white". It divided families, communities, the country - directly translated it is "separateness". As someone born in this land, I fail to see why Mandela must be held responsible for exorcising the daemons in our collective minds? He set the example, but it is up to each person to take responsible for changing themselves. Let this prince wear his crown of humanity and rest in peace... he has given more than enough.

Oh, and his message speaks not just to South Africa but to the entire human family that still practices apartheid in many different ways....