This year marks the 18-year anniversary of democracy in South Africa, and this past Youth Day was a reminder that the oldest of the so-called ‘born free’ generations are becoming eligible to vote. ‘Born free’ is an evocative notion, and it is frequently used in the current media discourse to imply that the post-apartheid youth have an intrinsic advantage over previous generations. Of course, the fact that they can vote once they have reached 18 years of age is an obvious and important gain, but this particular improvement is not necessarily enhancing the day to day quality of childhood for all of South Africa’s youth.
Eighteen years after the demise of political apartheid, we remain a fundamentally unequal society by design, and by an entrenched structure that has morphed from politics into an insidious economic apartheid. This fact brings a blitheness to this favourite ‘born free’ media label for our youth, which belies the deep challenges, both inherited and of their time, that many of our young people face.
While it is no doubt, pretty much attractive to many teenagers to be described as ‘born free’; it is probably a more than fair supposition that most of our coming-of-age South Africans do not experience their lives in quite so a-happy-go-lucky way as ‘born free’ implies.
Creative Consulting & Development Works recently had the opportunity to interact closely with a group of the ‘born free’ generation while facilitating a series of workshops for the City of Cape Town’s Arts and Culture High School Programme, which engages young people from previously-disadvantaged communities in a capacity-building and peer learning initiative. The group of teenagers we worked with came from a variety of communities, and we found them to be quite naturally, highly aware of the trials of life in South Africa’s poorer neighbourhoods. Their young lives are afflicted by high rates of crime, domestic abuse and gangsterism; substance abuse and teenage pregnancy as well as HIV/AIDS infections and deaths. They strongly feel the affects of the lack of safety in their communities and sometimes, in their own homes. They worry about the impact of accessing a poorer quality of education and healthcare than their more economically privileged peers. They note the absence of positive role models and leaders in their lives. They are well aware that personal prejudices and structural bias based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference and economic status have far from magically disappeared in South Africa just because we have held democratic elections over the past 18 years.
Some, of course, find the label ‘born free’ attractive and inspiring; others feel a weight of expectation that is not mitigated by their perception of the current opportunities open to them. However, what is so heartening is that these previously–disadvantaged young people, presumed to be so care-free while they battle their own adversities, actually do step up and get involved, give up some of their weekend time to be involved in a programme aiming for the greater good. In this way, they are perhaps not so different from their forebears who bravely challenged apartheid and struggled, against the odds, for positive change in our country.
Our impression was not to burden them with expectations of what it is to be ‘born free’ in post-apartheid South Africa; and not to in any way diminish the real challenges they face. Because, yes, up ahead, they do have a political freedom their parents did not have. But they are living, still immersed in a powerful and enduring post-apartheid structure; and they are most often swamped in a visceral apartheid-affected way of seeing the world that their parents, family, community members and perhaps even their teachers constantly communicate to them.
Our critical question is: As the adults, caretakers, experts and economic generators of today – how do we properly and sustainably support and nurture the prodigious talent, intellect and energy of these precious young people beyond societal prejudice and the very real structural legacy of apartheid? Because after all it is not just about the ability to cast a political vote, it is also about having a reasonable semblance that an active involvement in your family, community and country makes a difference to a long-lasting, peaceful, rights-based greater good for South Africa.
“I don’t think we are really free. Even though I wasn’t born in South Africa, from what I can see we still have some problems. I tried applying at Sea Point High School, but I felt uneasy with the way they handled my application because of the responses they gave me, this makes me think that there are still problems that exist.” “The youth doesn’t care about what happened before 1994 so they aren’t really phased about any of these problems. When everyone celebrates Youth Day for example, then those born after 1994 just celebrate without understanding the significance of the day.” said Hamilton, a grade 10 pupil at Cedar High in Mitchell’s Plain who was born in Mozambique.
“For me it feels like I was born into freedom. I get a chance to experience anything I want without being limited. Being born free also means I can have a lot of opportunities that I can strive to achieve which has a great effect on my future because now I can reach for my dreams and follow any career I want to.” said Maxine, a 15 year old pupil at Maitland High School.
Shannnen from Spes Bona Technical College in Athlone had the following to say, “It feels good because I wasn’t brought up in the struggle era, although I would of liked to of gone through it for some sort of experience and understanding. It’s exciting to be a part of the born free generation as now I will be able to vote in the next election. It feels like there is a lot of pressure on us though as some people have been telling us that the matriculants of this year are the ones that are destined to flourish. It feels like a lot to live up to.”
Article taken from Creative Consulting & Development Works Edition 21 Newsletter, June 2012.