Post-apartheid generation sees Mandela’s greatest fight as history
Analysis: the ‘born frees’ make up about 40 per cent of the population
Nokuthula Magubane: Yes, we were oppressed by white people; yes, it happened; yes, it hurt. But let us forgive each other so that we can move on fully and contribute fully to the South Africa we want to see in the future.” Photograph: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Sitting in her comfortable suburban livingroom 45 minutes east of Johannesburg, Nokuthula Magubane (18) was doing something close to unthinkable to older generations of black South Africans: She was praising Afrikaans.
“Afrikaans is such a laid-back and beautiful language,” she said. “You can just sit back, relax, speak your Afrikaans and be happy.”
Mandatory instruction in Afrikaans during apartheid was one of the sparks that set off the Soweto student uprisings of 1976. Hundreds of people, many younger than Magubane, were killed.
Countless others abandoned education rather than receive instruction in what they considered the language of the oppressor. It was a seminal moment in the struggle against apartheid, and the day of the uprising, June 16th, became national Youth Day in the new South Africa.
But to Magubane, “At the end of the day, Afrikaans is just a language.”
Such feelings are common among Magubane’s generation, known as the ‘born frees’ because they were born after the end of apartheid, or just before it ended, and are too young to have many memories of it. And while they certainly know Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday, it is almost impossible for them to grasp what it was like to see him emerge from prison in 1990 and become president in the nation’s first fully democratic elections four years later.
The born frees make up a huge segment of the population – about 40 per cent – and many older South Africans contend that they are apathetic and apolitical, unaware of the history of the struggle that made their lives better.
But the born frees have another name as well – the Mandela generation – and they insist that their determination to look to the future and not the past is the greatest tribute they can pay him. “Yes, we were oppressed by white people; yes, it happened; yes, it hurt,” Magubane said while Mandela was still clinging to life. “But let us forgive each other so that we can move on fully and contribute fully to the South Africa we want to see in the future.”
Akhumzi Jezile (24), a producer, television personality and speaker, says the born frees are portrayed as apathetic because they do not respond with the same emotion, or in the same numbers, as the Soweto generation does during Youth Day marches and similar remembrances.
“It’s not a matter of not understanding apartheid; it’s just a matter of us having different challenges,” he said. “I think the feeling that the born frees are ignorant comes from an older generation that sees a youth that doesn’t react the way they do. But that is normal. We didn’t live it, but we have a vibrancy. We are fighting our issues.”
He pointed to education campaigns led by young people to fight the scourges of substance abuse, crime and HIV.
True rainbow nation
Many, though certainly not all, of the born frees’ attitudes differ markedly from those of older South Africans. Young people, for instance, are more likely to socialise with people of another race, according to the Reconciliation Barometer, a yearly gauge of public opinion.
“It seems young people may be developing deeper relationships across historic dividing lines, beyond just interaction,” the 2012 barometer reported. They are also less likely to have faith in political leaders, and to blame apartheid for South Africa’s current economic and social inequality. And despite the warning from Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of South Africa’s powerful confederation of trade unions, that South Africa’s young are a “ticking time bomb” because of the unemployment and poverty rates they face – twice as high as in the general population – born frees are overwhelming optimistic, the barometer and other surveys have found.
Even young people from impoverished townships display a heady enthusiasm, though for many life has changed little in material terms since the end of apartheid, and unemployment is worse.
“Now there are no boundaries,” said Miles Mabaane (18), a resident of Vosloorus, southeast of Johannesburg.
“We young people have the potential to come up with new strategies of how to save the country, how to do things better, how to accommodate everybody in this country.”
Some born frees complain about their parents’ trying to hold them “captive” to the past.
“We are constantly reminded of what happened directly by those who were involved in the struggle – as a means of keeping us loyal, they brainwash us by continuously reinstilling fear about what the ‘white man’ has done, about how much pain was caused, how much suffering their generation suffered,” wrote AkoLee, a blogger who says she was six in 1994, when Mandela became president. “They say we are ungrateful for not thinking the same way they do, for questioning what the ‘black man’ is doing.”
Researchers warn that the born frees’ hopefulness could sour once their expectations of a better life are not met.
“Without more effective and sustained job creation, and soon, a mismatch between these expectations and the capacity of the economy to absorb young people is inevitable, and will have consequences,” the Reconciliation Barometer said. Many measures show inequality is just as a bad, or worse, for the born frees than for previous generations.
Nevertheless, most black South Africans 20 years ago would not have recognised the life that Magubane leads. A third of her friends are white. She has known many of them since she started school. She calls her white choir leader “Tanni Christine,” or “Auntie Christine” in Afrikaans.
As for Mandela, she said: “We have seen his example and now we’re going to follow it. We’re going to take it one step further into the future and we’re going to build the South Africa that he would have loved to see.”
– (New York Times service)