photo essay

Born free

Nelson Mandela’s “generation of hope” talk about their young lives in the new South Africa

By Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Twenty-five years ago South Africa held its first inclusive elections, ending decades of white-minority rule. A new constitution gave equal rights to all South Africans as Nelson Mandela, the first black president, focused on reconciliation and hope for the future. It would be up to the young – the so-called “generation of hope” or the “born-frees” – to realise his dream of a rainbow nation. But how have they fared?

This generation of youth stands at the borderline between the past of oppression and repression, and the future of prosperity, peace and harmony. No one receives the attention of our government more than the youth. You are the future. In your hands is the key to make South Africa a great country; to make our society a prosperous and caring nation.

Nelson Mandela, Speech on Youth Day 1995

 


This born-free generation intrigued photojournalist Ilvy Njiokiktjien. “There is equality on paper now but many still experience the consequences of apartheid,” she says.

Many live successful lives, pursuing careers that would have been closed to them under the old regime. Yet at the same time corruption, crime and poverty hold many of their generation captive. Instead of freedom and prosperity, they struggle – sometimes more than their parents – with unemployment and inequality. Class segregation seems to have replaced racial segregation. And for many, childhood is shaped by violence and the aftermath of HIV and Aids.

 

John Turner (17, middle) at  Hilton College boarding school. Scholarships and bursaries have opened up the formerly whites-only institution. “Being born into a privileged environment, you don’t realise that a lot of people in the country aren’t as lucky as you,” he says. 

 

The swimming  team at Michaelhouse, a neighbouring boarding school to Hilton College.  

 

Nonjabulo Ndzanibe, 21, in a rough area of Durban. She is homeless and to find shelter sometimes sleeps with men for money. She says the pressure to have sex for money or for jobs or favours is an everyday reality. 

 

Shane Veeran (23, middle) in a bar in Braamfontein, a student area of Johannesburg. His parents worked hard to send him to private school. “I don’t have a lot of Indian friends, to be honest,” he says. “Maybe going to a white private school has shaped me into sort of this white-hybrid-Indian dude.” 

 


Youth unemployment

Innocent Moreku runs a vintage clothing store. “Being lower class is not very easy, it’s very hard. Especially being… black.” He whispers the last word. He says racism is still common and white people still have the upper hand in the economy. 

 

The Creatives is an artistic collective in Pretoria. Organiser Innocent Moreku says:  “The generation of today talks so much about rights but we don’t talk about responsibility… The only thing we need to do as black people is to make sure we go to school, study hard and become phenomenal people. And not do drugs or alcohol.”

 


An unfair legacy

William Zondi has lived on the streets since he was six. “I have to have a gun to protect myself,” he says. Lacking other income, he and his friends mug people to pay for food. He would love to learn how to read and write to be able fill out the forms for surfing competitions. 

 

Rapper Phumlani Gongo is determined not to end up like an old classmate who was pulled down by drugs and gangsterism. “I’m doing music to stay out of other things, like doing drugs, robbing people…  My songs are about chasing dreams.”

 

Cindy Mfaba, 27, feels whites still have an advantage: “Their grandfathers and great grandfathers have been working and saving up, while our grandfathers have been fighting. But I have more opportunities than my parents. I get exposed to things that were deemed white people’s things, like playing the bassoon.”

 

Most of South Africa’s elite is still white and the majority of the poor people are black. But the growing number of successful black South Africans like to flaunt their wealth. 

 

Cindy Mfabe is part of the SA Fashion Talent Search in Johannesburg. She lives with her father, sister and brother in Alexandra, a township on the fringes of Johannesburg. She thinks of the workforce there as miners, digging up gold they don’t get to keep. 

 

Models wait for their clothes at South African Fashion Week. Cindy Mfabe acknowledges that young black South Africans have more opportunities but says their growth is limited by “black tax”, the expectation to provide for family members once they start making money. Her parents scrimped and saved to help her study design.

 


Crossing boundaries

Magazine designer Kevin du Plessis prepares for Gay Pride in Johannesburg. He works for Gay Pages SA, founded in 1994, the year the new constitution was introduced. Before that, being gay was illegal, although Du Plessis says the authorities used to leave gays alone because they focused on the “the black danger”.

 

Kevin du Plessis and his partner, Dewet, at home in Johannesburg. “I grew up being told not to make friends with our maid. Her cup was kept under the sink, with the cleaning products.” Du Plessis frequently clashed with his family over racist attitudes and remarks. 

 

Foreign exchange trader Jason Noah, 21, leans on the new BMW he bought for himself. He grew up in a middle-class family – his parents were both police officers – but saw that his friends in Soshanguve, a township outside Pretoria, were less fortunate.  One of them – Kiddie – became Noah’s best friend and now works for him. 

 

Jason Noah at the club in Pretoria where he will celebrate his 21st. He says girls and young men scream with excitement when he drives his new BMW through the city, but he doesn’t let it go to his head. Noah spent 250,000 rand ($17,000) on his party.

 


No vote of confidence

Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, is reputed to be the largest township in South Africa. The name is Xhosa for “our new home”. By the mid-1980s Cape Town was one of the country’s most segregated cities. Khayelitsha was one of the old regime’s final attempts to enforce apartheid.

 


Born free

Mzimkulu Ntakana dresses for his Mgidi, a celebration of boys becoming men in Xhosa culture. “Our elders are with us, teaching us how to think like a man,” he says. 

 

Mzimkulu has red dirt put on his face during his Mgidi. Jobs are scarce in the mainly rural Eastern Cape province, so most working-age people leave to find work in cities. Mzimkulu is studying to become an accountant but knows a degree is no guarantee of a job.

 

Wilmarie Deetlefs with her boyfriend Zakithi Buthelezi in Johannesburg. Buthelezi says people are often friendlier when they find out he has a white girlfriend. For Deetlefs, it’s the other way around. “Go get yourself a man of your own colour,” a taxi driver once snarled at her. 

 

Wilmarie Deetlefs and her boyfriend Zakithi Buthelezi  relax on a roof  terrace in Maboneng, in Johannesburg.

 

Students at Isolomzi Secondary School in Centane, one of the best-performing schools in Eastern Cape province. “I grew up in this village which was 100 per cent black… Then I went to Stellenbosch University, the whitest university in Africa. I had never in my entire life seen so many white people in one space.”

 

“In this village the majority of my mates are just sitting idly, doing nothing. There’s no prospect of getting a job whatsoever,” Nkamisa says. “When I start work, I will have to take care of 16 people.” He dislikes the term “black tax”. “It’s called Ubuntu. When I was growing up, these same people used to lend me their shoes, they used to feed me. It took the village to raise you.”

 

Lauren Japhta, 18, will miss school. “I really enjoyed Phoenix High School, I am very proud I went to that school. I live very close by the school [and] when it closed down earlier this year due to violence I also had to stay inside. It was scary.” 

 

People pray for Nelson Mandela at the Saturday service in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Naledi, Soweto. The former president was in a critical condition in hospital at the time. 

 

Students of Merensky High School in Tzaneen, prepare for a school choir contest in Johannesburg.

 

Tshepiso Leeyola, walks through Johannesburg. Leeyola is transgender and refers to herself as “genderqueer”. South Africa was the first country in the world to safeguard freedom of sexual orientation and is the only one in Africa to have legalised same-sex marriage.

 

“As a state we are free,” says Leeyola. But reality is different. “When you walk, especially in the townships, there are always people saying that being queer is unnatural, is abnormal. I’m more free around white people than I am with black people. Unfortunately, in the black community, we still have people that are still primitive and behind the times.”

 

Kommandokorps in South Africa organises camps for young white Afrikaner teenagers, teaching them self-defence and how to combat a perceived black enemy. Its leader, self-proclaimed “Colonel” Franz Jooste, served with the South African Defence Force under the apartheid regime.

 

“Everything is so close-knit and close by and everyone just gets along with everybody,” says Darshana Govindram, 24, of life in Chatsworth, a Durban suburb designed to segregate the city’s Indian community. She remembers Mandela calling the Hare Krishna temple an example of the rainbow nation.

 


About the photographer

Ilvy Njiokiktjien is a Dutch photographer and multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Der Spiegel, NRC Handelsblad, Telegraph Magazine and Stern, among others. She says: “When I first moved to South Africa in 2004, I realised that the scars that the apartheid times left on the South African society were very visible. I think one generation of freedom has not been enough yet – but hopefully with the years passing the country will become more inclusive and stable for everyone.”

All photographs by Ilvy Njiokiktjien/VII Photo Agency. Taken from Ilvy’s book  ‘Born Free – Mandela’s Generation of Hope’