Born Frees and Nelson Mandela: The Kids Don’t Understand Their Father


The Born Free Generation is 25 years old. I will be 25 in September. We were the ones who were born in 1994, the ‘Year of Freedom’. Our year is the year that Nelson Mandela spoke the Rainbow Nation into existence and we were its babies. Today, we are its youth. We are recent graduates, but with debt already, we’ve started working or we have not, we have access to spaces… some spaces. We are called by our names but sometimes behind our backs and at times to our faces, we are still called kaffirs. We are reminded, however, that we are his children, his generation, the fruit of his work. We are Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s children, the ‘Born Free Generation’. However, our relationship with our father is… uneasy. 

Speech act theory suggests that something becomes real once it is spoken because the utterance not only presents information but performs an action as well. Language does something. When the priest proclaims, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” he also makes the marriage real, he seals the deal. Perhaps this is what Nelson Mandela tried to do in 1994 when he called South Africa “the rainbow nation”. From henceforth (1994), we’d live in an equal society with no racism and no inequalities, they’d be peace and reconciliation. Kumbaya my lord, kumbaya.

However, things have not been as pleasant as Madiba intended. The nation that Nelson Mandela had in mind, is not what the Born Free Generation experienced and our dissatisfaction has been evident over the years. While the nation is a rainbow, in that it consists of diverse people, peace and reconciliation has not been achieved. Not in 1994 and, 25 years later, not today either. Today, what I hear the youth say about Nelson Mandela can be summed into two phrases on both sides of a spectrum: those who say he compromised as best as he could and others saying he is a sellout. In between that, are those think he was a wishful thinker. Others say his narrative of peace and reconciliation was too white. It did more for white people, those guilty of racism and apartheid, than the victims of it. 

The reason is that post-1994, what the Born Free generation experienced was not peace, unity and dignity. What we experienced was institutional racism, going to white schools where we were told how to have our hair done, we remained in our townships which are today still overlooked, we are still picked last, we deal with alarming wage gaps between black people and white people, men and women, and legacies of apartheid. It is difficult to attempt to put one’s mind around Madiba’s Rainbow Nation when that’s the daily experience of, we, Born Frees. Not least of all with the likes of Vicki Momberg walking around and the injustices we experience. 

The youth is unemployed, the student youth is in need of accommodation, the township economy is lacking, service delivery in black communities still leaves much to be desired. As black youth, we still don’t feel like a priority. The fact remains that youth unemployment has increased from 19.5% in the fourth quarter of 2018, to 31% in the first quarter of 2019. Former fallist and now MP (Member of Parliament), Naledi Chirwa said at the state of the nation debate that while there’s over a million students at South African universities, they’re only able to accommodate over 130,000. The equality our father spoke of still needs to reveal itself. All we can do is be loud about our dissatisfaction. 

The culmination of the frustration that we felt as Mandela’s children finally gave way to some revolution in 2015: Rhodes Must Fall. That movement gave birth to something even larger: Fees Must Fall. It was in these movements that the veil of the rainbow nation fell and the elephant in the room was finally acknowledged: There is no Rainbow Nation. The experience of the average black person is worlds different from the average white experience. If we were equal, if there was unity and if all the people of South Africa were treated with dignity and respect, these movements would not have happened. Still, yet, whether black people deserve to take back the land that was taken from them is up for debate. A debate that should have happened and finished in 1994, still goes in 2019. We are queuing for jobs, falling into debt too young, and dealing with racism in different ways. From general mistreatment to institutional discrimantion

What Nelson Mandela should have done back in the 1990s when negotiations were taking place is not so simple to say. It can be said that the apartheid government was not going to just give back everything they ever took and relinquish their power entirely. That, perhaps, would have taken civil war and this perhaps is something Madiba saw best avoided. Too many would have lost their lives on both sides of the fight. Still, the legacy of Nelson Mandela cannot escape a sense of white pandering. And for us, the Born Free Generation, it does not come so easy to forgive someone who does not seem apologetic, who denies their white privilege and reminisces about the ‘good old days’. 

Maybe we cannot put the blame for today’s corruption on Mandela’s compromises yesterday. Mandela perhaps acted with one hand tied behind his back. This, however, must be acknowledged. If his hand was tied behind him, who tied it and where are they now, what are they doing? What fruit are their children eating that we, the black Born Free generation, are not getting a taste of? It’s questions like these and all discourse around Mandela that makes our relationship estranged. There is too much secrecy in the past and too many problems in the present to simply accept Mandela’s egalitarian narrative and, even worse, to accept this fallacious label of Born Free. We were born something and many things like poor, marginalised, left behind, uneducated and more, but free is not one of those things.