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21 Up South Africa: Mandela's Children

Director: Angus Gibson

(US DVD: 22 Jul 2008)

At the tender age of seven, Frans already knew who he was and who he wanted to be: “I am poor. I want to be rich. When you are poor, you struggle”. Would his lot in life improve? Now 21, Frans is proud that his home in a Johannesburg, South Africa, township has acquired an inside toilet, a fridge and a TV. Yet, gesturing towards the wealthy neighborhood in the distance, he proclaims, “These people live a life of luxury. And that’s what you want. That’s what I am dying for. I am striving for it”. What will Frans say—and on which side of the divide will he live—seven years later when he turns 28?


The ability to watch people’s personalities develop as they grow up; to ponder how their education, family, friends, culture and community will influence them; to guess correctly and to be completely surprised—so sums up the addictive appeal of Michael Apted’s Up Series and its spin-offs, including this DVD, 21 Up South Africa: Mandela’s Children.


Apted has captured the lives of 14 Brits since 1964, when at first they were seven-years-old. His original film was called 7 Up; 14 Up followed seven years later. The latest installment, 49 Up, came out in 2005. Director Angus Gibson brought the Up series premise to South Africa in 1992, with 7 Up in South Africa.


The country was in the midst of a profound transition—it was two years after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and two years before he would become the country’s first black president. The 14 young people Gibson selected for his film were destined to grow up in a South Africa that was shedding its apartheid history and forging a multi-racial future, while also dealing with the inter-related crisis of crime, poverty, and the HIV pandemic. The group includes blacks, whites, Indians and people of mixed race, all from very different backgrounds.


How, at age 21, will they have coped with life’s challenges? Watching 21 Up South Africa, you feel part voyeur, part social anthropologist.


By 2006, three of the 14 have died of AIDS-related illnesses. The others are carving out their adult identities—going to college, looking for jobs, getting married, having children. Only two seem truly self-assured: Willem aspires to become a player for the Springboks (South Africa’s beloved national rugby team) and is pursuing a degree in sports management; Claudia is studying science with the hope of transferring to med school.


Amongst the remaining cohort is Lizette, a pregnant housewife who says she has a perfect life, but is so bored that she’s learned to like reading because it makes her days pass more quickly. Katlego, a well-heeled young black man, is overwhelmed by the position of power he finds himself in as a result of the government’s black economic empowerment policies. And Thembisile is unemployed, an all-to-common predicament in a country where only one in three women have jobs.  “I would take any job”, she says, “I don’t care. I would do anything”.


The film flashes back to interviews of the young people at ages seven and 14. It strikes you how much seven-year-old children take in from their surroundings, as when a small Willem discusses his feelings about the upcoming racial integration of his school. “There will be blacks there until the first break. After break there’ll be none”, he says. “Why”? asks the interviewer. “Because we’ll beat them up”.


At 14 he admits that his earlier comments were “stupid”. A seven-year-old Thembisile says she wants to be a police officer when she grows up because “then I can shoot you”. It is clear she knows who is behind the some of the killings in her poor black township.


A motherly-sounding narrator ties the vignettes together, and she often stresses that these are children that have grown up with more opportunities than their parents. They are “Mandela’s children”, after all. Nevertheless, you come away from the film with a real sense of how difficult it is to suddenly give everyone equal opportunity—the playing field is remarkably resistant to leveling, even when the political will is there. South Africa may be the continent’s largest economy, but most of these young people, like Frans, remain at its fringes.


The highlight of the DVD’s skimpy bonus features is an intriguing four-minute excerpt of a Roger Ebert interview with Michael Apted, in which both men talk about the strange experience of growing old with the people in the Up films. Gibson’s work is a worthy and compelling complement to Apted’s groundbreaking series. He is an accomplished filmmaker known for tackling meaty topics, having been nominated for a “Best Documentary” Oscar in 1996 for Mandela. And what could be meatier than the future of a country and its children? For real reality, turn off Big Brother Africa, and turn on 21 Up.

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