For the fourth time in three years, 94-year-old former South African president Nelson Mandela is in the hospital, battling recurring respiratory issues. As he recovers, South Africans are again faced with his mortality and considering his legacy.
“I came back to South African in 1994, before Mandela’s election, and it was the beginning of liberalization,” says Mandlesizwe L. Isaacs, an African business consultant from Johannesburg. “We wanted to move into a particular suburb and my mom had to get signatures from everyone on the block to prove that they didn’t mind a Black family moving in.”
Nineteen years after his release from Robben Island prison for agitating for the end of the racially divisive apartheid system, the generation of South Africans born since Mandela’s release—widely known as “born frees”—are living in a radically different country than their parents; one where Blacks, Whites and Coloreds are no longer legally bound to occupy separate spheres. But there hasn’t been much progress for the masses of Blacks in South Africa, and there is concern that the born frees are blind to the struggle.
“The born frees have reached adulthood, many of them with little or no interest in the momentous events that led up to the year of their birth,” according to an editorial in the South African daily newspaper, The Star. “Many other, older South Africans have been left bitterly disappointed in what has been achieved since.”
Nelson Mandela was released from prison February 11, 1990. The world and South Africans themselves expected that the born frees would seize the opportunities given them by the previous generation. They might not be as politically active as their sometimes radical parents. But these children of an activist generation inherited landmark legislation that expanded access and political participation for native Blacks and made South Africa a vanguard in human rights law.
“With these kids today, if they had our spirit, I would say we would have our own
Arab Spring right now,” says Deliwe Radebe, a business consultant from Soweto. “But our youth is not revolutionary. It’s like they don’t realize that they have a voice and they can speak.”
But not everyone believes that the born frees should be actively conscious of the country’s apartheid past.
“I think it’s a good thing there’s a generation of Black youth who don’t know direct oppression and what it’s like to be disenfranchised,” says Mandlesizwe L. Isaacs. “Your dream is that your kids can grow up and have these mundane middle-class lives that aren’t colored by oppression. One would hope they have some kind of consciousness about their history, but otherwise, I think its fine.”
Certainly, while political theorists insist that the born frees have prematurely forgotten the struggle and settled into complacency and blame the youths, some insist that the previous generations are at fault for not passing on stories of their Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for freedom.
“Because they lack a hands-on view of the struggle, they don’t appreciate it, and they can’t fully,” says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of Black popular culture at Duke University. “I’ve described [their African-American equivalents] as the post-soul generation. Their lack of consciousness raises questions about the responsibility of the folks that were 20-year-olds when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. They were the ones charged with passing down enough of the experience to the babies of the next generation,” he says.
The elder generation of South Africans feels the same about passing on their experience.
“Among the adults overseeing the youth, there are weak links in the chain,” says Deliwe Radebe. “They’re a reflection of us. I was there, in 1976 [during the Soweto Uprising]. I was young, yes, but I saw people in my family that sacrificed and didn’t live to see the day Mandela was freed. It happened bit by bit and we didn’t know it then, but we were fighting for freedom. So if you know where you’re coming from, it’s easier to see where you’re going. And that’s what we need to show these kids.”
But the born frees themselves see things a bit differently.
“Here in Bloemfontein, this was the center of apartheid,” says Portia Ngidi, a 16-year-old student at Eunice High School in Bloemfontein Free State. “This is where all the Afrikaaners and farmers and the White people that wanted to keep everything separate were, so we can see what it was like before and what it’s like now,” she says. Her friend and classmate Ivannah Jacobs agrees.
“We know the opportunities we have because apartheid is over,” Jacobs says. “Our school is one of the best in the country and it was Whites-only during apartheid. So we never would have been able to come here before, and it’s because apartheid ended and Mandela took over.”
So as the country collectively prays for our beloved Mandela to recover and remain as a symbol of Black empowerment and national unity, the born frees are weighted with the responsibility to both remember and live his legacy.
Bolanle Omisore is a freelance journalist who covers business, energy and environment news from the African continent. Follow her on Twitter @venerableladyB.