From: Featured Documentaries

The making of South Africa ‘UP’ series

An award-wining series tracks personal journeys of a diverse range of children who were born in apartheid South Africa.

The South Africa ‘UP’ series follows the personal journeys of a diverse range of young South Africans who were born in the apartheid era, filming them every seven years as they grew up through the country’s dramatic political changes.

We meet them first at age seven in 1992, two years before Nelson Mandela became president in the first non-racial elections in South Africa.

Every seven years since, the twists and turns of their personal lives have been charted against the backdrop of South Africa’s recent history.

In this eight-part series, we see the raw innocence expressed at age seven give way to awkward teens at 14, and the weight of beckoning adulthood at 21.

Love, family, money, religion, race and identity are some of the themes underpinning the charming, lively, poignant and in some cases tragic stories, that unfold by the time they are 28 in 2013.

‘Finding our stars’

By Jemma Jupp

My first ever night in South Africa was the night before the historic referendum on ending apartheid. I flew into Johannesburg from London on March 16, 1992, at short notice, and was installed in what must have been the most expensive hotel room in the city. It was the last one available, I think, as the world’s press had gathered to report on the vote.

I had read about it on the plane. The story had made the cover of Time magazine and made me realise that I was flying in at a pivotal time in the country’s history. The vote itself was restricted to the white population of South Africa, who were asked whether or not they supported the negotiated reforms begun two years earlier by FW de Klerk, the president of South Africa at the time, in which he proposed to end the apartheid system that had been implemented since 1948.

Had the country returned the wrong answer, there were fears that the reprisals would have been dramatic in the extreme. An odd moment to arrive in South Africa, I thought, as I was led across the marble foyer of the five star hotel by a bell hop dressed elaborately in what looked like fancy Zulu outfit.

Coming from a racially mixed area of London, I found the obsequious service and deferential treatment very embarrassing. However, from a South African perspective, it had been just two years since the African National Congress (ANC) was unbanned as a political party and Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, majority of which he had spent in Robben Island.

Thankfully for all concerned, the South African voters returned an overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote. The next day, I met up with my British colleague Liz McLeod, who introduced me to an anthropologist she knew at the university [ of the Witwatersrand] before flying off to Cape Town, where she was going to be based for the duration of her stay. Her brief was to find seven-year-olds down there whilst I was to do the same in Johannesburg and the north. I immediately liked the Wits anthropologist and moved into the spare room of her flat in Yeoville that week.

Then began the real work of actually finding who to film.

The director was Angus Gibson, an established South African documentary director and a founding member of Free Filmmakers – a film co-operative established in 1985 to create a relevant South African cinema. When I arrived, he was just finishing a long oral history project called “Soweto – A History”. In fact, our first meetings were held in the car travelling to and from Soweto where he was conducting the last interviews with people who had stories to tell about the resistance.

Far from being intimidating, my first memory of Soweto was of being bundled into a small room adjacent to the interview and being asked to entertain boisterous toddlers for hours on end. With no common language, it was an unexpected introduction to a place I had heard so much about.

People always ask how we found the children. It is of course the most important part of the entire film.

Liz McLeod and our producer David Wason had both worked on the British anthropology documentary series Disappearing World for many years, so they had compiled an excellent document that profiled the country in terms of race and communities. Angus had been born and bred in South Africa, so he instinctively knew where to look. I had previously worked on the startup of a 7UP project in the former Soviet Union so I had experience of some of the pitfalls and procedures. Together, we delegated areas and set about finding our stars.

I was paired up with a flamboyant character called Tale. He was an actor and spoke most of the black languages that we were going to come across in the Johannesburg townships. Like most black South Africans, he did not have a driving licence, so I was behind the wheel of the rental car as we made our daily forays in search of kids.

At the time, there was quite considerable political violence going on in the townships as supporters of the Inkhatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the ANC battled over supremacy. We were not targets but still it was important to stay out of the crossfire so I learnt a new highway code, which included never stopping at a red light and always locking the doors. It was so long ago that we didn’t even have mobile phones. The other non-negotiable rule was that we had to leave the township before dark, which in Africa always caught me by surprise.

We would trawl schools, speaking to the principals and visiting all the classes of seven-year-olds. We would take a photo of the ones we liked and get the parents’ details for a home visit. 

We travelled up to Pietersburg (now Polokwane) and down to Durban on the coast, before meeting up with David Wason, our British producer in Cape Town, for a final selection process which involved hundreds of polaroid pictures laid out on the floor of the hotel room while we attempted to complete the puzzle of what combination of children to include.

I feel privileged to have been part of the film. It was truly an extraordinary time in an extraordinary country. It was a time of incredible energy and optimism and was a very exciting period of change. I was told that our film was the first film broadcast on the South African state television that featured people from more than three racial backgrounds.

A year later, I was back in South Africa working on a different project. I was driving around in another hire car listening to the radio, and Angus came on air as part of a phone-in on 7UP South Africa . The film had just aired and people were ringing in with their views – one man thanked Angus and said that though he had lived his whole life in South Africa, he had never understood the breadth of his own country before seeing our film.

For me, that was the best thing that anyone has ever said about anything I have ever worked on. It is the reason we make documentaries.