Post-apartheid South Africa has many myths in different spheres of public life. The sphere of the battle of ideas has its fair share of such mythology. Since 1994, concepts such as South African exceptionalism, rainbow nation, lost generation, post-colony, white genocide, white fears and recently, born frees and many others have emerged across the political and social spectrum.
As a working definition, concepts are theoretical constructs drawn from reality, concretely or imaginatively but always attempting to grapple with dynamics of human life or nature. Concepts have at least two uses. They describe a phenomenon and they inspire action. In the socio-political arena, they have the power to mobilise or demobilise in whatever direction depending on the intentions of the user or propagator.
Today I’m concerned with the false concept of born frees. The concept of born frees is one of the biggest myths in post-apartheid South Africa. It is said that the children born in 1994 and after, are born frees. Although nobody has ever defined what born free means, one can reasonably deduct that the so-called concept refers to the coincidence of being born in a free South Africa.
Consequently, two extremes of appropriation have occurred with the concept. Firstly, there have been formations such as AfriForum, VF+ and others who claim that white children born after 1994 should be cleansed of entrenched and systemic white privilege. Secondly, there has been a lulling chorus that says all children born after 1994 are free, born free. Two problems arise out of these two extremes. Firstly, there is no attempt to explain what kind of freedom is spoken about. Is it total or partial liberation? Secondly, both applications of the concept are ahistorical.
Now, it is dishonest to pretend that there is no distinction between political, economic and even cultural freedom, even as we know that they are always dialectically related. The ahistoricity of the concept arises when propagators want to make us believe that history proceeds in a linear fashion and that there is a Chinese wall between the past, present and future. In truth, the present is born of the past and the future is born of the two and together they are one continuum.
Yes, changes in time and space produce qualitative and quantitative realities of a different nature, but the imprints of the past are always present. For example, although the Group Areas Act is abolished, apartheid spatial development is stubbornly gawking at us daily. The movement of a few blacks to white suburbia must not mislead us into thinking that the structural legacy of apartheid in this regard is undone. In any case, there is no reciprocal movement of whites into townships, except for the few reported instances of white shack settlements.
Indeed, in comparative terms, the majority of black youth who live in townships and rural South Africa still have lower or no incomes at all and have to spend more on transport to access better opportunities in the urban centres than their white peers. Another example: the drop-out rate at university is unfavourably skewed towards black youth.
I also have a problem with the origins of the concept. It does not originate from the youth themselves. It originates from our liberal media and it perpetuates misinformation and miseducation. In addition, it originates and is appropriated by various interests in society in the course of the battle of ideas, jostling to shape society in their own image. Young people must fight forcefully for their right to cultural freedom that enables them to define themselves. I know that as a strata, the youth are not usually coherent but I believe a generally progressive movement must exist somewhere to free the youth from the myth of being born free.
The Sowetan of January 7 2014 screamed with a big front-page headline: “Born frees fly high.” Well, many of these born frees will face corporate ceilings in the private sector due to the race question, which some fear to discuss today, whereas in the public service, they normally soar higher. The reason is simple; history weighs heavily on the shoulders of the present generation.
This is not to argue that the past 20 years have seen no progress and that the youth must not see themselves in positive frames of being “free”. But it is to underline the fact that we have an arduous task to define the meaning of freedom and to do so honestly. Young people must be in the forefront of this task.
I’m afraid, for the laborious work standing before us, the myth of born frees is demobilising and the price to pay is too harsh to contemplate. We must do everything to free ourselves culturally and materially.
Finally, we must defeat this laziness, miseducation and misinformation and uproot it from our vocabulary. Born free does not exist. It demobilises and lulls us into slumber. To say “children or great grandchildren of Mandela” is better but not sufficient.