South Africa’s ‘Born Frees’ Are Disillusioned With Democracy

Ahead of a crucial election, the country’s political parties are scrambling to win over those raised after apartheid

South Africa’s ‘Born Frees’ Are Disillusioned With Democracy
South African youth attend an event in Johannesburg on April 27, 2024, to celebrate 30 years of freedom. (Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

Three decades ago, on April 27, 1994, a seismic shift reverberated across South Africa. After centuries of white minority rule and legalized racial segregation, Black South Africans stepped into the polling stations to cast their votes in general elections for the first time.

It was a historic moment marking the official end of apartheid, a system that had entrenched racial segregation and denied basic freedoms to Black South Africans. Just days later, Nelson Mandela, the head of the African National Congress (ANC), was inaugurated as the country’s first Black president, symbolizing hope and the dawn of a new era of equality, liberty and justice. The ANC was swept to power on a tidal wave of Black enthusiasm as previously disenfranchised voters voted for the first time, motivated by promises of “a better life for all.”

Three decades later, that promise rings hollow for millions across “the rainbow nation,” a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the multicultural diversity of post-apartheid South Africa.

For the “born free” generation — those who were born after the 1994 transition, the oldest of whom mark their 30th birthdays this year — 2024 marks a bittersweet milestone, as the anniversary of apartheid’s demise coincides with another important event on May 29, when South Africans go to the polls to elect their new government.

The born frees were supposed to be the first generation to experience true freedom and equality in a democratic South Africa. However, the reality for many of these young South Africans is far from what was promised.

Dreams of middle-class life in the lush suburbs of South Africa, or even of affluence, have instead been met by the nightmare of continued poverty, deteriorating services and power blackouts on a scale unimaginable in a country once considered a beacon of hope and shining example for the rest of Africa.

On paper, and in the minds of South Africa’s ruling classes, the rupture of 1994 has brought about some profound changes to the social landscape. The advent of democracy has helped to create a growing Black middle class, increased access to education across racial lines and restored basic human dignity to Black South Africans.

South Africa also boasts a constitution hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. It enshrines the rights of all citizens, regardless of race, religion, gender and sexuality, and is celebrated for clearly defining and practicing key democratic principles. Yet despite its lauded constitution, the reality on the ground tells a different story — of poverty and extreme inequality.

Tessa Dooms, author of “The Colored,” a book that delves into the history of mixed-race people in South Africa, and who is mixed-race herself, says that the born frees are disillusioned with the concept of democracy in South Africa. “The lack of development in South Africa is giving democracy a bad name. We are one of the few countries in the world that tick the boxes of good governance but our people are not seeing the benefits and dividends of democracy. The youth are struggling to transition into having a fully fledged life. All they know from birth is democracy, and democracy only, so they think it’s democracy’s fault,” she told New Lines.

Katlego Mahoa, a 30-year-old hairdresser from Soshanguve in Pretoria, voiced her disappointment at the country’s failure to live up to its rhetoric: “I was born three months after the historic elections and as I was growing up I would hear stories from my grandmother and my mother about the dark apartheid days. In all fairness, we now have the freedom to move wherever we want to, vote for who we want, live where we want — but honestly, that is not the reality. We are still living in an unjust society.”

In a startling survey by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network, taken prior to South Africa’s 2019 elections, it was revealed that 70% of South Africans were willing to trade elections for jobs and security. Five years down the line, this sentiment is still alive in parts of the country.

Kgomotso Modise, a 31-year-old recovering drug addict, said he turned to drugs out of hopelessness after failing to finish primary school. This led him to the streets, where he got hooked on nyaope (a street cocktail drug composed of cannabis and heroin, bulked out with powder-based substances including antiretrovirals).

“Eish,” he said, expressing annoyance, “life in the ghettos is no walk in the park. We struggle to make ends meet and are driven to get involved in criminal activities. Where is the better life that we were promised? Where are the jobs and good schools in the shanties? Mara [‘but’ in South African slang], we were better off in white regime.”

As the country gears up for its seventh election since the end of apartheid, the nation faces a myriad of challenges that threaten its progress. Almost 12 million people between the ages of 18 and 30, the born frees, will form one of the major voting blocs in the most contested election since the ANC took power in 1994.

Polls suggest South Africa is headed for a historic turning point in the upcoming election. For the first time, the ruling ANC could lose its outright majority. In 1994, the ANC won 62.6% of the vote. In 2014, the ruling party garnered 62.2%, which later fell to 57.7% in 2019.

This decline in the ANC’s fortunes is directly linked to its failure to drastically change the lives of the majority of Black people. The latter rallied solidly behind the party when the winds of change blew across the South African political landscape in 1994 and repeatedly came back to the polls in its support, despite the lack of delivery on the ground. Yet with one of the highest unemployment rates globally, millions are now trapped in poverty, relying heavily on social grants, such as the social relief distress grant, popularly known as the “350 rand grant” (equivalent to $19 per month). This grant is given to South Africans, permanent residents and refugees who have no financial support from any source.

The situation has worsened since the end of apartheid, with unemployment standing at 32.9% in the first three months of 2024. The latest statistics from Stats SA indicate a 45.5% unemployment rate among young individuals aged between 15 and 34 years. Unemployment rates are highest among young and Black people.

To many, the harsh realities of unemployment and a lack of economic opportunities mirror apartheid inequalities. According to the World Bank, South Africa is the most economically unequal country in the world, with 10% of the population owning 80% of the wealth, and “Race remains a key driver of high inequality in South Africa due to its impact on education and the labor market.”

Wealth disparities have left millions of Black South Africans mired in poverty. The explosion in the number of informal settlements across the country epitomizes South Africa’s economic decline since 1994. The collapse of inner-city services, with potholed roads, dead traffic lights, uncut grass and broken water pipes, is a clear indication of a country whose leadership has lamentably failed to live up to its promises.

This year’s election represents a watershed moment. A born-free revolt against the ANC’s incumbency could shake up South Africa’s politics and accelerate demands for more radical reforms to tackle inequality and improve service delivery.

“If young people turn up en masse to vote, I don’t think any of us can predict what they are going to do because they are not monolithically voting on any political lines, not on race or class lines. If they turn up we are going to have an unpredictable election,” Dooms told New Lines.

The history of previous elections shows, however, that given South Africa’s apartheid past, as long as opposition parties are perceived to serve the interests of non-Black racial groups, not even their promises of a better future can sway the opinions of enough Black voters to make an impact.

Despite the born frees being born into a nonracial democracy, racial inequalities and segregation still persist for them, with unequal education opportunities and continued residential segregation along racial lines — Blacks living in townships and whites in the suburbs.

Bronwyn Leigh Davies, a white 22-year-old fine arts honors student at the University of Witwatersrand, grew up well aware of the racial tensions in the country. She believes that generational racism still exists in South Africa and that this too will spill into voting patterns. “We still have a lot of institutional and structural echoes of what happened in the past, even just looking at where people live,” Davies told New Lines. “People still link together culturally, even during breaks at the university. We automatically group together based on race and culture.” Given South Africa’s history of racism, it is almost impossible for the nation to escape the grip of identity politics. Race remains an inescapable fault line that cuts across generations.

Raeesah Chandlay was 8 years old when apartheid ended. She is Indian and grew up in Lenasia, a predominantly Indian neighborhood that was proclaimed an Indian township under the apartheid group areas act of 1958. Chandlay, who is a conservationist and writer, told New Lines that a lot of the youth are disillusioned and justifiably angry. “So much has trickled down from the apartheid regime and this has continued to shape the mindset of the youth. Realistically, race dominates everything in everyday South African life.”

Against this backdrop of inequality, the likelihood is that the born frees will cast their votes in alignment with their identities and traditional party allegiances. Political parties across the country are actively trying to win the youth vote, as they recognize their potential to swing the upcoming elections. In its campaign messaging, the ruling ANC has been emphasizing its legacy as the party that ended apartheid and brought democracy. It promises continuity and stability after serving for three decades. However, the ANC is grappling with disillusionment among the born frees over corruption and a lack of economic opportunities.

Earlier in the year, during the February State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa told a fictional story about Tintswalo, a child born at the dawn of democracy whose life has since benefited from the government’s policies after apartheid. In his speech, Ramaphosa highlighted Tintswalso’s upbringing with access to essential services like water, electricity, education and health care, basic services denied to many Black South Africans prior to 1994.

The speech was met with much criticism. “When you look closely at the reality of Tintswalo, the society Tintswalo is growing up in, it’s increasingly becoming a state where we are losing faith in a democratic institution. We are in a state where the national coffers are completely eroded,” Xolelewa Kashe Katiya, of the civil society group Indlulamithi, told the South African broadcaster Newzroom Afrika.

As the May 29 date draws nearer and the major opposition parties race to win the youth vote, many of them are cognizant of the fact that this group of voters has little or no experience of apartheid and that their issues are different from those of their parents and grandparents.

Typically perceived as a “white party,” South Africa’s second-largest party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has rebranded itself as a nonracial, pro-business alternative to the ANC as it makes inroads with South Africa’s young electorate. The DA has campaigned aggressively to shed its minority, white party image and appear as a party for all races that is committed to job creation and economic growth.

Twenty-eight-year-old Nicholas Nyati was born and raised in a rural farming community in Kirkwood in the Eastern Cape. Nyati, who is both Black and the DA’s interim youth leader, dispels the idea that the DA is a party that only looks after the interests of white South Africans. “That’s pure propaganda and politicking by the ANC to tarnish the DA’s image,” he told New Lines.

Although he was born two years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, Nyati does not agree that he was born free and is urging the youth to vote for a party that will give all South Africans equal opportunities. “I was not born free. I went to school at a school that has a pit toilet. I had to sleep in a laboratory. That’s not freedom. Even if I’m lucky enough to graduate from an institution of higher learning, I struggle to get a job. Even to get a job, I must bribe someone, that’s truly not free.”

The vacuum created by the mismanagement of South Africa by the ANC allowed those who disagreed with the way things were being run internally to leave and form their own parties, seeking to do things differently. The biggest break from the ANC happened in 2008, when, in the aftermath of the ouster of Thabo Mbeki as president by a faction led by Jacob Zuma, disillusioned members formed the Congress of the People (COPE). In the election a year later, they took 1,322,027 votes, winning a 7.42% share of the total.

Three years later, the ANC expelled former African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema for bringing the party into disrepute. The following year, he founded the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and his fledgling party won 25 seats in the national assembly in the 2014 national election.

Under the radical leadership of Malema, the EFF has adopted a populist platform that seeks to appeal to disillusioned youth. Malema and his fellow members of Parliament attend the august house dressed in red industrial work clothes, rubber boots, miners’ hats and domestic workers’ outfits, to symbolize that they represent workers and the poor masses.

In its campaign messaging, the EFF is calling for economic transformation and pushing for the expropriation of land without compensation to white owners. Other key policies include the nationalization of banks and mines, a subject that has struck a chord with disadvantaged young people.

In universities and townships, the EFF has launched an aggressive outreach campaign where millions of youth reside. “The EFF is pressing upon the desperation of the youth and they are making promises that they cannot easily fulfill. The EFF says the things that young South Africans want to hear, but when it comes to implementation their track record is not good,” said Dion Forster, a South African Methodist minister and academic who serves as a professor of public theology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

South Africa’s economic woes, coupled with a lack of opportunities, have seen the rampant enthusiasm that manifested around the 1994 election visibly wane, particularly among the young. The ANC’s attempts to encourage participation by wooing popular musicians and other artists to be part of their campaigns have failed to translate into voting numbers.

In recent elections, there has been a trend of low voter turnout among young people. In 2019, the Independent Electoral Commission reported that only 56% of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 registered to vote and that the voter turnout in this age bracket was significantly lower than the national average of 66%.

The social activist Malik Dasoo, who comes from a middle-class family, has had a privileged upbringing and went to good schools. He was not subjected to the socioeconomic challenges that millions of Black South Africans face. “Things have gotten worse from the promises of 1994. As a kid you wonder why? But as you grow up you see that it’s the deficiencies of our government and an uncaring attitude of the private sector,” Dasoo told New Lines. “The youth haven’t mobilized as a coherent demographic to the extent that they did during the anti-apartheid movement. They can do it by voting but they are disillusioned by the voting process. Thirty years of democracy, but every time you go out to vote, things get worse.”

The country once viewed as a shining example to all other African countries of how to get it right has fallen off its pedestal. The disillusioned youth are likely to be a key factor in deciding what direction South Africa will take in the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen if the divisive color lines that define South Africa, even today, will be breached by the desire for a better life.

“There’s anxiety about what is going to happen. There’s also this quiet hope because for the first time in 30 years we have a chance of unseating the ANC. This has never been presented to us as a possibility before,” says Dasoo, as the clock ticks toward an election that could drastically change South Africa’s political future.

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