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The Trials and Triumphs of South Africa’s ‘Born-Free’ Generation

July 13, 2015

When Nelson Mandela died two years ago, many South Africans felt like they had lost a father. Mandela had given South Africa political stability, a newborn democracy, and lifted thousands from the depths of poverty; and yet ZA remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. The wage gap between the rich and poor is enormous, and two decades of uneven economic growth has left the white minority richer than ever. The unemployment rate is at an alarming 37 percent, with the country’s education, health care, and even electricity systems failing.

For those who have lived through the Apartheid, these harrowing facts are nothing new. The citizens of South African have survived many a violent and oppressive struggle, and thus see the achievements of their late president as being all the more miraculous.

But what about those who are too young to remember the Apartheid? That were born and raised in Mandela’s time, a time of economic growth and hard-earned peace? This generation – South Africa’s millennials – are known as ‘The Born Frees’ and boast an optimism and care-free nature different from the generations before them.

Since the Apartheid is still such a defining part of the South African identity, it is hard to imagine a new generation that has little to no interest in the country’s politics. These millennials tend to see themselves as the “Mandela Generation” but see his fight as history, insisting that the best gift they can give to Mandela is an ability to look to the future and put the past behind them. Born Frees are much more likely than their predecessors to have mix-raced friendships, less likely to blame the Apartheid for the country’s inequality issues, and rarely feel the need to vote.  A huge challenge for the ANC, and other ZA political parties, is finding a way to ‘woo’ the youths who have no memories of the Apartheid and therefore don’t vote based on more sentimental values.

Despite their more carefree attitude, however, the Born Frees do not have it easier than their forbears. Measures of inequality are just as bad or worse for the Born Frees than for any of the previous generations, with these millennials facing greater levels of unemployment, poverty, and discrimination than their parents. Furthermore, more than half of 18-25-year-olds in ZA are unemployed (with ZA constituting a frightening 1.9 percent of global youth unemployment); many of them have received a poor education; over one million of them suffer from AIDS (with only 25 percent receiving treatment); and youths in ZA account for 29 percent of the country’s prison population.

So, with all this in mind, what makes the Born Frees so optimistic about the future? According to a group of Born Frees, interviewed in the BBC’s article “South Africa’s Born-Free Generation,” these millennials feel an enormous amount of gratitude and have respect for those who lived before them, but they feel like the country is healed now – there is no longer any reason to feel unsafe or feel like you can’t achieve something based on your race, gender, or socioeconomic class. The Born Frees feel as though they are truly free – perhaps a feeling that is rare for young people in any country, not just in South Africa.

Photo Courtesy of Kyle Taylor/Flickr


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