Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

IS a history lesson almost two decades after South Africa’s first democratic elections necessary? Adam MacDonald, vice-president of programming for A&E Networks UK, felt it was crucial – certainly for the younger generation and those to come – hence the green light for History Channel’s Miracle Rising: South Africa.

In the words of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

At last week’s press conference, where the doccie – which features an array of celebs and political figures such as Charlize Theron, Oprah, Bono, Richard Branson, Hillary and Bill Clinton – was aired to almost 800 media guests, MacDonald said: “Very important territory for us, South Africa. And we are very keen to tell these iconic stories. And just after this was discussed with Michele Sparkes (producer) and Brett Lotriet Best (director), it seemed such an obvious story to tell. Just their treatment was so ambitious and we just kind of went into it straight away.

“Concerning young people, we have a network of channels across the world with 350 million viewers. To share that with a South African and global audience is incredibly important. How you strike that balance in making it valuable and to a global audience. There was talk at one stage of making it as if you are making it for future generations of South Africans who don’t know the story. That worked out fantastically.”

Out in the field in the 1990s, Sky News presenter Jeremy Thompson revisited his memories and married them to the doccie.

He said: “The big thing is, on the ground for four years, we covered every twist and turn.

“I was in Boipatong hours after the massacre. I was in the middle of the Ciskei massacre and we nearly got killed in this country telling your story of your country. But with all the snapshots in four years, probably 2 000 hours of footage we snapped at the time.

“This (documentary) finally puts all the pieces of the puzzle together. I witnessed little bits of history here and there. This puts it into the big picture of history. Finally, nearly 20 years down the road, we have one big story that people can take in instead of small bits made along the way.

Thompson continued: “A lot of people have forgotten the number of times it (democracy) could have failed, with Chris Hani’s assassination, Boipatong and various massacres and right up to the last bomb going off before the elections. We spent more time covering that than the elections.”

Aletta Alberts, the general manager of content at MultiChoice, said they would share the documentary with the SABC.

She explained: “We knew right from the onset, if we were going to screen it we should give it to the public broadcaster. It is such an important part of our history. I think a lot of South Africans who had no idea of what was going on, and I think even for people who thought they were in the know. Because we are a pay TV operator, only certain people would see it, therefore it was very important for us to open it up to the public broadcaster so that every South African can see it.”

Producer Sparkes shed more light on how it all came together with an abundance of footage at their disposal.

“We had a wish list and we had restrictions. We sent out letters and everybody said ‘yes’. We were trying to schedule and the irony of the whole thing was that Archbishop Desmond Tutu would say he would be available on the 15th and then Christiane Amanpour was also available on the same day. So Brett would do Tutu and I would do Christiane. It was the same case with Charlize Theron and Bono. One was in Ireland and the other in New York.

“When we interviewed Richard Branson, he asked: ‘Are you interviewing my friend Peter Gabriel?’ We said he was on the list. He then got on the phone and called him. And he gave us something to give him, then Peter gave us something to give Mary Robinson and she gave us something to give to Bill Clinton… and that is how it went.”

The doccie doesn’t have a narrator, but the compelling stories of everyone featured propels the story of South Africa’s first democratic elections.

It isn’t in chronological order, but it is insightful, and hard-hitting, especially in the massacre scenes… and certainly unforgettable (despite Nelson Mandela not giving any comment as he was ill at the time it was shot).

If nothing else, viewers will feel a tad more patriotic.

• Miracle Rising: South Africa airs on History Channel (DStv channel 186) tomorrow at 1.50pm and 9.50am, on Saturday at 9.25pm and on Sunday at 5.25am and 1.25pm.