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Is South Africa’s “Born Free” Generation Truly Free?

Nobel Square @ Cape Town V&A Waterfront
Nobel Square @ Cape Town V&A Waterfront

On the 18th of July, the cavalry came to Cape Town.

In a surprise move, the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) arrived in Manenberg and began conducting search and seizure operations — their mission — combating the startling rise of gang-related violence in Cape Town.

In the shadow of Table Mountain, one of Africa's most popular tourist attractions, gang violence has increased dramatically. Over the past seven months, the bloodshed has killed more than 2,000 people, and what is most discouraging is that the gang members waging this lethal war are nearly all young South Africans.

It is a hollow feeling to know that this has happened before. In 1998, SANDF was deployed to Cape Town to stop gang violence and now, 21 years later, a new generation has perpetuated the violence and the cycle continues. This generation, however, carries its own unique moniker.

Widely referred to as the "born-free" generation, they were the first generation born free of apartheid, and in theory, have more opportunity than ever. However, this opportunity does not seem to have materialized.

Twenty-five years after the election of Nelson Mandela, South Africa has not lived up to its promises for young people. It was widely reported in 2018 that the World Bank had deemed South Africa the world's most unequal society, but the timing seemed wrong: how could this be happening now, in the post-apartheid era? How can a nation reborn on the foundation of equality for all people, as Madiba said, be so unequal?

When the ages of those murdered by gangs in Cape Town are emblazoned across the nightly news, they seem to follow a pattern: 21, 20, 19, 18, 17, etc. I am 17 years old, and as a South African living in America, it is heart-wrenching to know young people my age were killed in Cape Town just days before SANDF arrived.

The ghost of apartheid continues to loom over the entirety of South Africa, a poison seeping into the once bright future of the nation's youth. It was always idealistic to believe we could overcome the effects of apartheid upon Mandela's election, but the actions of subsequent presidents have impeded progress in delivering freedom to the 'born-free 'generation. The legacy of President Zuma has not just stalled the country's economic prosperity; it has made a younger generation cynical of politics, and instead acclimated to corruption, inefficiency, and inequity.

However, the problems holding the born-frees back do not exist only in politics. They lie also in the overall loss of opportunity in South Africa, which disproportionately affects the youth. While the end of apartheid has led to greater economic opportunity for the middle and upper classes, those who were poor during apartheid have stayed poor. "On the whole, the poor have not been the direct beneficiaries of economic growth," says Carlene van der Westhuizen, a South African economist. The young in South Africa have felt the burden of this disparity; Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt, chairperson of Rethinking Economics for Africa at Wits University posits that more than 60 percent of the youth in South Africa are unemployed.

As poverty and inequality hinder the chances of being truly free, the youngest generation of South Africans has opted to abstain from democracy. For the elections in 2019, nine million eligible South Africans voters had not registered; 46 percent of this group were aged 20 to 29, according to the Independent Electoral Commission.

South Africa's youth are also struggling to attain the basic education that might offer an escape from cyclical unemployment and utter poverty. South Africa's education system is at the bottom of its class; in a league table (a set of statistics comparing multiple countries) of education systems drawn up in 2015 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, South Africa ranks 75 out of 76, in terms of primary, secondary, and tertiary enrollment and matriculation rates, as well as having a high rate of neither employed nor in education or training (NEET) 20-24 year olds. For poorer students, education is a luxury and not a basic human right. Higher education costs have long been on the rise, prompting the 2017 #FeesMustFall protest movement led by students protesting against planned fee increases of up to 11.5 percent in higher education, which would have made education unaffordable for many lower-income students.

This arc of broken promises leads us right to where we began — the ignominy of apartheid-esque inequality in a nominally post-apartheid nation. South Africa continues to glorify the generation of struggle heroes who liberated the nation (and rightly so), but the country has new struggles to contend with. It is too early to continue celebrating the freedom fighters if the fight for freedom has not yet been won.

Young South Africans live in a nation that, despite its inequities and failures, is filled with opportunities unimaginable under apartheid. The nation is at the threshold of attaining the prosperity lying just within its reach. However, it has been 25 years, and every time the born-free generation reaches for freedom it edges further away from their grasp. Instead, we are left with the names of those killed in Cape Town: Ashtivon Gaffley, Alcardo Andrews, Rory Wyngaard, and countless others, many of whom are still unidentified.

The born-free generation can become truly free if real change goes beyond party lines. These are changes that should transcend the political squabbling that characterizes current South African politics; instead of fighting, the older generation should deliver reform to the education system, fix the ailing economy, and create measures that uplift the impoverished youth. With real, targeted change, perhaps adolescent cynicism can be undone. Indeed, increased political participation by young people is in itself a catalyst for further measures that create a nation better than the one they inherited.

Without these reforms enacted, young people in Cape Town will inevitably turn to gangs and criminal networks. The result is a perennial cycle of death and poverty that would be abhorrent to Nelson Mandela if he was alive. South Africa's born-free generation is not to blame; citizens my age deserve more than just the end of apartheid. They deserve the reversal and the disintegration of its vestiges that continue to linger in South African schools, in the economy, and in the political cynicism that has made youth believe the politicians they elect will not help them. Despite never living under apartheid, the born-free generation remains in shackles. This problem will require more than just the mobilization of SANDF; it will take a mobilization of the entire society to take the next step beyond ending apartheid and into a future where children will be born truly free.

Joseph Mullen is a 17-year old South African citizen living in the United States of America.

About the Author

Joseph Mullen

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more