South Africa’s “Born Frees” Struggle With History

By Ed Cropley

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – When Nkululeko Simelane was born on April 27, 1994, her parents did not have to think twice about her name.

Her birth coincided with South Africa’s first multi-racial elections, the momentous day that ended three centuries of white domination and 46 years of formalised oppression of the black majority under apartheid.

In Zulu, Nkululeko means “Freedom”.

RTR3MAB1 (2)Twenty years later, the leaders of South Africa’s no-longer teenaged democracy will mark the date – Freedom Day – with pomp, ceremony and lectures about the sacrifices and achievements of the African National Congress (ANC) in its long struggle for liberation.

Featuring prominently will be the name Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid hero and South Africa’s first black president who died aged 95 in December last year, along with other “struggle stalwarts”, as ANC elders, both dead and alive, are known.

Nkululeko, by contrast, will celebrate her 20th birthday with a group of friends in one of the many Bohemian, multi-cultural and multi-racial industrial-chic quarters of Johannesburg that have sprung up since the death of white rule.

Unlike her parents and grandparents, hers is not a South Africa of black and white, oppressor and oppressed, the privileged and the powerless.

“There’s still a bit of racism around but it doesn’t affect me. Broadly speaking, this whole apartheid thing, I just don’t feel it any more,” she told Reuters in the manicured grounds of Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, where she is a second-year civil engineering student.

Instead, to her, South Africa is a land of opportunity and potential, its challenges more economic than racial. It is a view that prevails among many “Born Frees”, the term bestowed on the first generation to grow up with no memory of apartheid.

“I’m not planning anything big for my birthday. I just want to get all my friends together and we’ll go out to lunch somewhere,” she said.

“I care about the history in terms of where we come from, but it’s got nothing to do with the politics today and what they are planning on doing for us tomorrow.”


For the ANC, a 102-year-old political movement whose raison d’etre throughout most of its life was the overthrow of white-minority rule, the “Born Frees” – who now number 20 million, or 40 percent of the population – are problematic.

As a May 7 election approaches, the party has been proclaiming – with some justification – that South Africa since apartheid is a “good news story” of strong economic growth, relative political stability and gradual social transformation.

However, its current crop of leaders, many of whom spent long periods in jail or exile, remain firmly wedded to the glorious but ever more distant past of the liberation struggle.

Addressing an Easter weekend service at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium, President Jacob Zuma, a scandal-plagued 72-year-old who served 10 years alongside Mandela in notorious Robben Island prison, used the word “apartheid” no fewer than seven times.

In November, at a political rally near Pretoria, he criticised the term “Born Free” as “propaganda”, and dismissed any notion of young South Africans putting the politics of the past before their interest in the latest iPhone or Hollywood blockbuster.

“Young people know the struggle,” Zuma told the crowd.

ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, a gruff former leader of the South African Communist Party, piled in a few days later.

“I hate that term which most people use to describe our young people, calling them ‘Born Frees’. It’s liberal and it is destroying our young people,” he said at a memorial lecture to a dead Xhosa tribal king.

“It says you have no history and if you have no history you are like a tree without roots. You can’t disown your own history because heritage is very important to us.”


However, the reality is that 38 years after tens of thousands of black students and school children rose up – and in hundreds of cases laid down their lives – against apartheid, most young South Africans nowadays have other things on their mind.

Besides the inevitable 21st century distractions of sport, fashion and music, their primary concern is work.

Among the youth, 40 percent of South Africans are unemployed. Accordingly, nearly three in four view unemployment as a “big problem”, according to Cape Town-based market research firm Pondering Panda.

More worrying for the ANC is a finding by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), a think tank, that only 35 percent of youth think the government is “doing well” at getting them into jobs.

In a 2012 “Reconciliation Barometer” study, the IJR also found only 9 percent of youth disagreed with the statement “South Africa should forget about apartheid and move forward” – a sentiment at odds with the ANC’s obsession with history.

Tellingly, the vast majority of students who visit Soweto’s Hector Pieterson museum, named in memory of a 13-year-old schoolboy shot dead by police at the start of the 1976 uprising, are foreign.

In the same vein, Election Commission figures support the view that “Born Frees” are turned off by politics.

Of an estimated 1.9 million people aged 18-19, just 646,313 have registered for the May 7 election, a sign-up rate of just one in three. The registration rates for voters aged 20-23 are not much better.

“This non-participation is a function of the limits of the liberation narrative,” said Vishwas Sargat, a University of the Witwatersrand political scientist.

“People are seeing a mismatch between the evocation of a glorious past, and witnessing a movement in decline and degeneration, and they are becoming cynical and sceptical about it.”


However, not all young South Africans are tuning out.

One of the features of this year’s election has been the emergence of the ultra-leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema, an expelled ANC Youth League leader who portrays himself as a revolutionary in the mould of Venezuela’s Huge Chavez, right down to the jaunty red beret.

“The ANC is telling us about the past. It doesn’t matter,” said Sabelo Fumba, a 20-year-old EFF activist in Soweto who condemns the inequality that persists between blacks and whites, who are likely to earn six times as much, as a form of economic subjugation.

“Nowadays, I can study where I want to study, I can wear what I want to wear, I can go where I want to go. I’m able to go out partying with white kids,” he said. “I can say I’m politically free. But economically I’m not free.”

However, for all the EFF’s fiery rhetoric, the latest polls suggest it is going to notch up just 4 percent of the vote at the election, while the ANC is on track for a 65 percent majority, little changed from its 2009 result.

The bottom line for many youngsters who have registered to vote is that no matter how disillusioned they may be with the scandals that have typified Zuma’s time in office they remain in thrall to the ANC-imbued mind-sets of their elders.

“I haven’t decided how I’m going to vote,” Nkululeko said, with a faint smile. “It’s more like my grandmother decided for me.”

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