I had assumed that South Africa: the Massacre That Changed a Nation (BBC Two) would be a documentary telling the story of what happened at the Marikana platinum mine, the largest in the world, near Johannesburg, last August. Thirty-four miners were shot dead by police as they protested over poor pay. The shootings were all the more shocking for having taken place in the full view of television news, as if nothing overly untoward was occurring.
But Labour MP Peter Hain’s outstanding film (part of the BBC’s excellent This World strand) offered much more than just a dab of background to go with a reminder of what took place. Hain, who was brought up in Pretoria and became a staunch anti-apartheid protester once his parents were hounded out of South Africa and moved to the UK, portrayed the Marikana massacre as the fruition of social and economic bad seeds sown when the ANC first came to power.
Hain and film-maker John Thynne had put the legwork in – from trekking up mountain paths to interview family members of miners who’d been killed, to buttonholing the CEO of Lonmin, the British company that runs the mine. From all this he assembled a picture of a South Africa that 20 years after the end of apartheid is still ruinously divided – but along lines of wealth and power now, instead of just race.
What really impressed was that for once the celebrity name in front of the camera had used his contacts and clout to bring the film something it otherwise couldn’t have had. Here, that meant everything from evidence that the massacre was pre-arranged to an interview with President Jacob Zuma. As Zuma smiled and squirmed in the face of an impressive Hain cross-examination, it struck you that whatever new dawn the end of apartheid was meant to bring, this surely wasn’t it.