South Africa’s Future Held by ‘Born Frees’

Can its leadership adjust to that reality? We asked the Rev. Frank Chikane, a veteran ANC leader.

Frank Chikane (Alexander Joe/Getty Images)
Frank Chikane (Alexander Joe/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The “new” South Africa turns 20 next year.

The “biggest challenge” for this maturing democracy is how it deals with the “born frees,” says the Rev. Frank Chikane, who played a central role in the death of the old regime and the birth of the new order. The born frees are those too young to have firsthand experience with the whip of apartheid.

It’s a challenge confronting the country generally, but especially the African National Congress. The liberation organization turned political party that Nelson Mandela did so much to build has run the government since 1994. It probably won’t lose its ruling-party status soon, but at some point that could change if it doesn’t adapt to the born frees, said Chikane during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.

And as the young come into their majority, South Africa, inevitably, sadly, also will have to adapt to a time when the 94-year-old Mandela, the father of the country, is no longer with us. His recent illnesses worry many in and out of South Africa.

Chikane is in a position to know the strengths of South Africa’s new democracy, but also its vulnerabilities.

As a leader of the anti-apartheid movement, he was jailed, tortured and targeted with a nearly successful assassination attempt that used poisoned underwear. In the democratic government that took over with Mandela as president, Chikane was a top official in the deputy president’s office, then director general in Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. As director general, he was like a combination of President Obama’s chief of staff and national security adviser.

But for all those and many more experiences, it is Chikane’s children who give him a particular insight into the future of his party and his country.

“I’ve got three sons,” he said. Obakeng is 32, old enough to remember apartheid. Though still a young adult, he belongs to the “old order” and is among those who “want black empowerment, want nationalization of mines … corrective measures because of apartheid,” Chikane said. The middle son, Otlile, 28, “is in between.”

It is Chikane’s youngest who gives him a view to where South Africa is going and the ANC’s path forward. Rekgotsofetse, a college student, is 21, “which means he is going to be voting for the first time … this coming year [2014].” Though he was born during the last days of apartheid, he is with the born frees because he is too young to know a government that excluded black people.

“He’s completely different,” Chikane said. “He’s not talking about black empowerment. He’s not talking about affirmative action. He’s talking about freedom to make choices … he thinks he beats the white kids in class anyway. So he’s not worried about the white kids. He’s more worried about what are the opportunities that are there for him.”