Mandela’s children: The world of the born frees

Sikwamkele Ndakisa, 18, is less than optimistic about the future waiting for her outside these walls.

“There are no jobs in South Africa,” the first-year journalism students says. “There are people with diplomas and degrees with no jobs. As someone in university, you are scared of ending up like that person who is not working.”

Ndakisa is what South Africans call a “born free” – those born in 1994, the year the ‘new’ democratic South Africa came into being.

She is already considering taking her skills abroad after graduating from Walter Sisulu University; she says she just does not feel proud enough to stay.

“Our grandfathers and great grandfathers lived with the African National Congress (ANC). They saw the struggle. We did not,” she says. “What we are seeing now are problems. What we are slowly seeing is the need for change. Yes we love the ANC and thank them for what they did. But what we need right now is services.

“They always talk about proudly South Africa and unity, but I am honestly not that proud. I do not even support the national soccer team,” she says.

Indiphile Buwa, who is from South Africa’s second largest informal settlement, Mdantsane. She says the country has “painted this horrific picture” that she keeps inside her head.

“In Mdantsane it is rough. It is winter now and it is getting dark earlier. My mother was in a taxi one evening when she saw two men standing outside a house. Four other men surrounded them, took what they wanted, and left. No one came to help [the two men],” says Buwa.

Ongweza Sigodi, another university student, says such situations are common in the townships.  “We cannot live in a country where a guy comes up to you with a knife and no one does anything to help,” she says.

“We just have to face it,” says Buwa, “The future is bleak.”


Although originally from the rural village of Tsolo, just 76 kilometres from Nelson Mandela’s home of Qunu, Ndakisa did not grow up like many of her neighbours.

“In school, we were all mixed. I grew up in a guarded and protected community. We all heard of racism but never felt it or saw it,” she says.

Ndakisa had the opportunity to attend a Model C school – higher quality learning institutions previously reserved for white children during apartheid. It was only in 1992 that these schools opened its doors to all races, or rather, to those who could afford the exorbitant fees.

Today, Ndakisa’s education and upbringing – and the commonly held view that she speaks English with a “posh” accent – have set her apart from some in her community. She is regarded as a “coconut” by her black counterparts – a derisory terms for someone thought to be ‘black on the outside and white on the inside’.

“Every Sunday there was a church community [gathering]. The most favourite food was Indian. We sort of changed; we started eating spicy food after that. But it was awkward when I went back to the rural areas. [The black children] looked at me differently,” she says.

“I could not even speak my home language properly. I sometimes just sat with my great grandfather and talked to him.”

Sigodi explains that those who attend English-speaking schools tended to blend their home language with English. This could often lead them to becoming social outcasts.

“When you use English they [black township children] will look at you in another way and say you are riding high horses now. So they will separate themselves from you,” she says.

Struggle legacy

Alost two decades after the end of apartheid, high school history textbooks have been rewritten to reflect a struggle that was once all but silenced in corridors of learning across South Africa.

Azola Futshane, 19, a law student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), recalls history lessons from high school, whose chapters touched on men like Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe, but portrayed Mandela as the main force behind the country’s freedom.

Mandela has been glorified by history, but many born frees feel that neither he nor his party, the ruling ANC, has had a positive effect on the country today. For them, Mandela’s rainbow nation has largely turned into a tragedy.

In 2014, the country will celebrate its 20 years of democracy and the born frees will, for the first time, be of legal voting age.

However, many are not thrilled by the prospect of an election. Ndakisa says her generation’s gloomy outlook about the future is because the ANC’s 19 year reign has shown no progress.

“They promise but they do not give back. Bring another party in and let’s see what can happen. Maybe then we will see the difference.”

Buwa says the country’s leaders are disconnected from society.

“We do not really get to see our leaders. They are only visible during election time when they need to campaign,” she says. “That is when they want to talk about service delivery and job opportunities.”

Sigodi comes from a strict ANC supporting home where it was blasphemous to question the ruling party. She was not allowed to talk favourably about the ANC’s main opposition, Democratic Alliance (DA), as it was led by a white woman, Helen Zille.

“When we talked about the different political parties, my grandmother would walk into the room and tell us this house will vote for ANC because it is an ANC house. I was told I cannot vote for another political party,” Sigodi says.

Zizipho Nqamra, also a student at WSU, suggests that the reason South Africans keep voting for the ANC is because we are scared of losing the grand image of Mandela.

“He is the only icon of the struggle that has been over praised. Everywhere you go there is something that has got to do with Mandela. We are scared because he is no longer in power and no longer has the same power…which is why we just keep bringing the ANC in power.”

Damon Leppert, a white born free who had attended the prestigious Selborne College, believes that whether it is the ANC or the DA that win the next election, South Africa will be ruled by a government that only looks to benefit itself.

“As much as Zille wants to correct the wrongs of the ANC she is also after the power instead of freeing the people, which is one of the reasons I am considering not voting next year,” he says.

Futshane has not given next year’s elections much thought. “I asked a few friends but we never spoke too much about it. At the end of the day we are working on promises.”

He believes South Africa will be very different when born frees inherit it. “The system will change. We are not tied to the ANC because we were not born in that time. We are seeing the world through new schools,” he said.

Although change has come for much of the newer generation, the inherent divisions created by decades of apartheid still linger. Leppert says he noticed a pattern in the way students chose their friends in school.

“From grade one to five everybody sat in a mixed group. From grade six, you find racial boundaries developing. You will find the black boys sit in one corner, the coloured guys sit in one area and the white guys sit in another area. And as the people separated so did their opinions on other races.”

Futshane feels it is natural for people to gravitate to others of their own race.

Steve Anderson, a deputy headmaster at Hudson Park High, a formed Model C institution and the highest ranked school in the Eastern Cape, says that in socialising, students still tend to choose their own race. Mixing usually only occurs in classrooms and during the lunch breaks.

“When it comes to sport they do mix,” he says, explaining that the segregation has less to do with racism, than with a group of individuals who can relate to each other considering they came from the same cultural backgrounds.

Anderson (2)

Anderson says a great challenge that many born frees face, particularly those from poor black communities, is the lack of parental support.


Social integration

Social integration and diversity, said Anderson, have provided young South Africans the opportunity to be exposed to different perspectives, cultures and languages. In turn they have developed self-assurance that was not there in previous generations.

“When I look back at 1992, the first black boys I taught showed a bit of nervousness and anxiety when they first came into the system. Time has helped. These [born frees] have acquired confidence. They fit into the system.”

Futshane says diversity has especially benefitted people in his generation. “I ride the taxi and I hear [older] people complaining about the white man. I am glad that since I grew up in a free South Africa I do not have these thoughts.”

His experience in a former Model C schooling system has led him to believe that it is the best platform for social integration.

However, there have been detractors who felt these schools are not as diverse as initially thought. In fact, they believe it interferes with cultures and traditions.

In response to a feature by Anderson titled Class of 1994 published in the Sunday Times last year about the experience of his multiracial class that grew up without ever having been touched by apartheid, he says he received some criticism.

One reader raised the argument that Model C schools did not integrate any of the black South African cultures. Instead, black learners are assimilated into the school’s culture, which was more Westernised.  As a result, black children were losing their identity, the reader said.

But Anderson says his school is making an effort to embrace Xhosa culture. The language is taught at a high level and the school runs the Qhayiya Cultural Society, which was previously a group meant for black learners, it is now open to all students regardless of race.

Futshane says culture is only impeded when it comes to technology. “Wherever Western culture is, technology will spread. People my age prefer to be on Mxit (a social networking platform for mobile phone users) than to learn about their ancestors. Maybe when they are older they will want to learn about their culture.”

The real world

Recent statistics suggest that South Africa’s schools have not equipped born frees with the knowledge to survive beyond the classroom.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report for 2013, the quality of the country’s general education system was ranked 140 out of 144 and it ranks second to last in maths and science, only beating Yemen.

Internet access in schools is also in the bottom third of the list, ranked at 111th due to the fact that information and communication technologies are costly.

According to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), 73.9 percent of 2012 matric learners in South Africa, of which born frees made up the bulk of the numbers, passed their final examinations. This was a 3.7 percent improvement from the previous year.

While the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, celebrated this feat, most analysts believed that such a pass rate was only achieved through the low standard of education. Born frees only need to attain 40 percent for a higher grade pass and 33,3 percent to be successful on standard grade.

Anderson says a great challenge that many born frees face, particularly those from poor black communities, is the lack of parental support. Drug abuse is also an issue to continues to plague this generation of youth, he feels. He says life orientation and community service programmes have been initiated to encourage students to follow a healthier path.

“Students have good hearts. I am overwhelmed by how much they want to help. But I would like to see more learners involved.  Too many of them are concerned with their own lives,” Anderson says.

A gloomy future

Futshane worries that opportunities for employment, in particular, are going to be scarce for his age group.

“My sister took five months to get a job and we say that is not bad. If that is not bad, then what is?”

He feels the country’s affirmative action policies have hindered progress. He said that it is easier for a person of colour to be selected into a university faculty even if their white counterpart might have a superior high school average.

“Everyone is trying to fix the country. But by elevating one, you step on another,” he said.

Leppert thinks that his generation’s greatest hurdle is the social imbalance caused by apartheid. He feels that South Africa is still finding a middle ground.

“Systems like Black Economic Empowerment are an attempt at developing a complete social balance. Whether that is the correct approach to it, I think it is still to be seen.”

Anderson understands why born frees are anxious about the future.

“With what we read in the papers – mismanagement of funds, fraud at the top level and poor healthcare – it is hard not to be pessimistic.”

However, he is hopeful, saying that born frees are inheriting a country where people are interacting on a healthier level than before.

“Most South Africans in my generation have an element of racism within them because of how we grew up,” he says. “These teenagers are creating the new South Africa that they are moving into.

– This story previously appeared in the Al Jazeera magazine’s special Nelson Mandela issue, December 2013. 

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