SABC3 opts for a new view on Mandela

Nelson Mandela is one of the best known public figures on the planet, and the story of his experiences, his life and his career has been told time and again. But The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela, a 2 x 60-minute...
September 1, 1999

Nelson Mandela is one of the best known public figures on the planet, and the story of his experiences, his life and his career has been told time and again. But The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela, a 2 x 60-minute series, is different. Unlike other programs about the former South African president, it purposefully excludes any interviews with Mandela himself.

Eddie Manzingana, commissioning editor and manager of local programs at the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Channel 3, says he immediately liked the idea. ‘The series is about the people who have influenced Mandela and the people he has influenced,’ Manzingana explains. ‘Mandela is a very modest person. He is not the type who takes the credit himself. He will always apportion it to others. This producer turned the camera around and studied Mandela through the eyes of people who have shared his life.’

While the project was still in the making, coproducer Indra de Lanerolle of Johannesburg-based Films 2People brought the project to SABC3. ‘By the time they came to us, the production processes were already way ahead, but they needed a local broadcaster,’ Manzingana says. ‘It was initially pitched as a 3 x 60-minute, but we didn’t think our schedule could accommodate three [hours]. They were happy to cut it down to two to suit our requirements.’

The idea for Mandela originated with California-based Unapix International, says de Lanerolle, who adds his initial reaction to the proposed series was ‘Oh, no.’ He clarifies: ‘Starting a doc in an arena where you know other people have been before made it an inherently difficult beginning, thinking of how we could do something that people would want to watch. Then we came up with the method and thought, `No, this should actually be quite exciting.”

According to de Lanerolle, SABC3 contributed ‘what for them would be a full doc budget, but for us was quite a small percentage of the total. It was significantly under 10% [of a budget of nearly US$1 million].’ Unapix was the major funding source behind Mandela, along with Boston’s wgbh (which ran the program as a Frontline special in May) and Japan’s NHK. Massachusetts-based Story Street Productions and Frontline senior executive producer David Fanning coproduced the program with Films 2People.

Notes Manzingana: ‘We have budgetary constraints, unfortunately, so we make up a lot of our budgets with such coproduction deals. And they add value to the quality of our programs.’

Mandela aired on SABC3′s doc strand, Expressions, over the course of two consecutive Sundays in late June (around the time when Mandela stepped down as president). ‘We started this slot [Expressions] at the beginning of the year, in January. Previously we did not have a fixed, weekly slot for docs. We would schedule them in between the gaps,’ Manzingana says. ‘But we thought, in the interest of establishing the image of our documentaries, we should start up a weekly slot, brand it, give it a name and market it. And that’s been working very well in terms of viewer awareness.’

The Mandela series was popular enough with SABC3 viewers that Manzingana plans to repeat it again earlier next year. ‘What was very good about it was the production value itself. The quality was very brilliant,’ he says. ‘People who have seen the program do confess to the fact that it’s one of the very few extremely good programs that has been made of Mandela.’

Next year, Manzingana hopes to keep the programming for Expressions on the lighter side. ‘We tell human stories and we range our stories from the light, social aspect of life, to personal stories, like biographies.’ Programming for Expressions is currently divided nearly equally between local commissions and acquisitions. Mandela was an exception, though Manzingana says he hope to do more copros.

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Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.