I could easily liken the experience of living as “Born-Free” in South Africa to that of dangerously misinterpreted and pitifully misunderstood celebrity.
The experience of growing up in front of the unseen eyes of a hopeful nation has been perilous yet hedonistic one. As I progress into the age of adolescence, the arena of tertiary education and the journey of self-development, the dichotomy of existing in South Africa as a “Born-Free” has only become more overt. It is as if I have been walking on an 18 year-long runway into enticing fog the colour of our national flag, obliviously strutting my stuff while I hear unseen spectators scream conflicting messages of motivation and distrust: “The Born Free Generation!”… “What do you know about liberation?”… “We need for you our emancipation”… “Say something, be part of the democratic conversation”. Still walking. While I attempt with all my might to derive true meaning from these conflicting messages and absorb their intention into my undecided identity, the needles of older generations and the threads of the media ruthlessly sow an oversized garment proclaimed on my behalf to be my new look- my identity as a “Born-Free”. Born-Free? Born into Freedom? Or born to live freely?
So there I am, pacing this runway: metaphorically clothed in the identity of a card-holding member “Born-Free” generation, a poster-child for black economic achievement and a supermodel for a post-Apartheid society. I am famous for my mere existence. The attention is magnificent! I am wanted for things I do not understand. I am needed to answer for what I cannot account. Nice. Isn’t it?
No. Because I am yet to be given the opportunity to have my voice heard, let alone hear my own voice.
In this paper, I attempt to spring-clean our identities as Born-Frees in order to provide some clarity as to who we are as individuals and as young national citizens.
There are a few realities our youth must confront in order to be clear about who we are to ourselves and where in society are we able to manifest change we would yearn to see.
We could never be rightly held responsible for the decisions and actions taken by our forefathers.
It is incorrect to be made felt as though we have a duty to answer and account for happenings which occurred independently of us. We need to understand that our democracy and our Constitution works specifically for the youth in protecting us from being held morally accountable for our ancestor’s doings and misdoings.
To a 20-year-old Hendrik, never allow anyone to demonise you because your surname is Strijdom and your father is a former National Party supporter residing in the rural parts of the Free State who wears a cowboy hat and khaki shorts all year round.
To a 19-year-old Kamogelo, it is not for you to take responsibility for single your mother who could not amount to anything beyond a domestic worker under an economic system which was historically designed to oppress people of your kind.
To 18-year-old Khaya, never be apologetic about the decisions your parents made to afford you the best life that they could. Never take responsibility- in the form of shame- about being one of the only three black teenagers in your Tuscan estate or in your classroom.
We must remain cognisant of the fact that it would be hypocritical of us youths to take responsibility for certain decision which were made independently of us, while we ignore taking responsibility for others decisions. Yes, there have wonderful decisions which have been made in relation to who we are as individuals and young citizens, yet also, there have been decisions made which have had terrible and complex influences and implications on our lives. We are not doing anyone favours by taking accountability (of any kind) for these decisions if they did not have our direct involvement in them. In fact, it would be an unnecessary moral injustice to ourselves if we did.
With the above having been stated, it brings me to my next important point in relation to the spring-cleaning of our individual and national identities.
Just because we are not directly morally responsible (and should not be responsible) for the decisions our forefathers made, it would be immoral of us to exempt ourselves from the consideration of living under and through the legacies of these choices made independently of us.
It is important for 20-year-old Hendrik to realise that although he is not directly morally responsible for the decisions made by his forefathers, he must accept that he does, indeed, benefit from racially discriminatory agenda was set and institutionalised 65 years ago. Hendrik must be prepared to accept that the colour of his skin gives him economic, political, social and general hegemonic advantages. It would be wrong of Hendrik to state that he is equal to all South Africans, yet alone all Born-Frees. The decisions made and agendas set by his forefather’s perpetuated legacies Hendrik himself benefits and lives from, whether this fact makes him smile, cry or leaves him feeling ambivalent.
19- year-old Kamogelo must face the harsh reality of realising that a racially-based agenda which was set 65 years ago sought to discriminate, dishonour, disvalue and demean people of his kind. However, Kamogelo needs to accept that he that legacy laid by the orchestrators of apartheid and the subsequent decisions his parents and grandparents made is a legacy which he lives through. There is a great possibility that Kamogelo attend(s)/(ed) school in a township or rural area; that he is one of several siblings living on a meagre income earned by a single parent; that he his immense potential which will be questioned, scrutinised, examined and painfully procured from him. Kamogelo must accept that he is likely to work thrice as hard enjoy half of the opportunities others receive by virtue of hegemonic advantage.
18-year-old Khaya must be able to accept that although his parents managed to successfully break the cycle of hereditary poverty, he is not immune from the cycle of ignorance. Khaya should acknowledge many- if not heart-breaking- sacrifices were made for him to exist in a reality where is able to have opportunities his parents were not able to enjoy. Khaya must also acknowledge that even though he was synchronised-if not born- into wealth from an early age, he still faces battles of having to negotiate his own identity in various spaces which his parent’s success affords him to exist in. Although Khaya may be an example of economic emancipation, he is a minority, and therefore, just like Hendrik, he too should not make the mistake of thinking that he is equal to all youths in South Africa.
We Born-Frees are more special than our name. We are the first generation in this country to be examples of walking narratives of oppression and emancipation. We carry with us the legacies of the past yet, we hold the very future in our hands. We have a dual identities. Breathing dichotomies we are. The promise and potential in our generation to lobby pivotal and sustainable change in South Africa is frightening. What is even more frightening is that we allow frivolous and uncritical definitions of our individual and national identities to threaten this potential we have. In introducing a way to reconcile and reckon with bringing these identities to life and lobbying for the kind of change we need to see in our country, I emphatically raise the issue of casting our votes.
The fact of the matter is that voting it is vital that we cast our votes in the elections on the 7th of May 2014. These elections are about us- the youth. They are not about our friend’s opinions; they are not about what the media selectively tells us; these elections are not even about our family’s political alliances and affiliations.
I encourage the youth rise from apathy. I encourage the youth avail themselves to the voting polls. I encourage the youth to not spoil their votes. I encourage the youth to not vote in a tactical manner. In fact, I personally challenge our youth to cast their votes, clearly, critically and consciously.
In progression with this season’s pivotal elections, I encourage the youth to refrain from making certain political decisions in light of perfection or autonomy. It is completely rare that a political party will completely appeal to you and convince you as to why you should make an “X” next to their name.
In as much as it is your Constitutional right to not vote, refraining from the electoral process does not exempt you from the changes South Africa will experience in terms of the economy, social dynamics and the law. Thinking that not voting will equate to a utopias life free of politics, the effects legislative changes and social responsibility is incorrect.
We must understand the relationship between politics and citizens when it comes to elections. We will only disappoint ourselves by casting our votes with the ultimate aim of getting a specific political party into complete power. This is an incorrect, yet, common interpretation of the jingle “your vote counts”. What this jingle really means is that not only are you contributing to having a specific party take power, you are also contributing to having an influence in the make-up parliament, changes in the law and the subsequent the governance of South Africa.
Democracy gives us the opportunity to cast our votes nationally and provincially. This freedom increases that influence of our voices being heard. If you feel that a specific party is suitable to govern provincially but, not is not quite capable of national governance (or visa-versa), then exercise your freedom to cast your vote accordingly.
As vital as these points on the elections are, it is even more important to know that your vote does not guarantee an immediate change you would want to see in South Africa. Your vote allows to make your voice heard as a citizen, however it does not grant instant and complete change. You as an individual, we as families, friends, communities and societies need to recognise the discrepancies and needs we see within ourselves and around us, and act on that mandate.
Our votes are not lover letters to political parties informing them that we depend of them. Our votes are not decorative pieces of paper which designates parties to various spheres in our political climate.
Our votes are merely invitations to political parties to be part of this change we need and want to see. Our votes are merely trust-cards issued to political parties, informing them that we trust them to be part of the journey of change with us.
Change does not stop with your vote. It starts with it. And an important start, it is.
Accepting the fact that we as a youth, live through certain legacies- as resulted in the decisions made independently of us- is not us agreeing to being crucified in some metaphoric way or another. Accepting the fact that we live through certain legacies should also not suggest an acceptance of being trapped in an unescapable prison of shame, guilt, confusion and inequality. When we accept the fact that we as a youth live through these legacies, and that these legacies are interwoven with each other- regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, social and economic status- is when we will truly understand the nature of our individual identity and where we fit-in in the national identity. It is through this acceptance, will we only understand how much power we have as individuals and as a youth to lead this country of ours to a place which would be please us to be in. Exercising our mandate to vote coupled with our responsibility to honestly and critically assess the discrepancies within us and around us, is the only way we are able to bridge a constructive relationship between the past, the present and the future- as well as where we fit in in these realms of time.
Most importantly, let us not distance ourselves from Hendrik, Kamogelo and Khaya. These characters are literary representations of each and every one of us. In as much as there is definitely a Hendrik in you, there is definitely a Khaya in me. These characters are connected and therefore we- in reality are all connected. We must do the work of acceptance in order to truly be the change we want to see in ourselves and in our country.
Born-Frees, this country is ours.
See you at the polls.