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)

Rekgotsofetse is “a free thinker,” which would make him “a misfit in the African National Congress,” according to his father, long an ANC stalwart and a former member of its executive committee. “He will question everything, and in the tradition of the African National Congress, you follow a line … He will ask questions that are uncomfortable.”

There are a number of uncomfortable questions the born frees and others have about South Africa under the ANC — about corruption within the party and government, about police abuse (including the police killing of miners at the “Marikana massacre” last August), about high unemployment. Among those 15 to 24 years old, the unemployment rate is 51 percent (pdf), according to South African government statistics.

Chikane’s concern is that the political party with which he identifies so closely could fail the born frees.

“If the ANC doesn’t change, it is going to lose that generation,” he said. “And if it loses that generation, it will lose an election — you can be sure about that.”

For Chikane’s generation, the proud history of the ANC and its commanding presence in the fight for freedom generates lasting loyalty. Older generations “will vote for the ANC because the ANC is the movement that liberated the people,” he said. “That’s the critical issue.”

“But my [youngest] son doesn’t have that history. It doesn’t affect him. He’s going to look at the ANC and say, are you meeting my needs or are you not meeting my needs?”

To attract and keep people like Rekgotsofetse, Chikane said the ANC “will have to open up more; it will have to allow more free thinking and expression.”

Youth and young adults have a history of pushing change in South Africa and within the ANC. Mandela was 26 when he, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others organized the ANC Youth League in 1944. It has played a critical role in pressing for change, and its leaders have sometimes been controversial figures. That includes Julius Malema, the former Youth League president who was expelled from the party last year in part for comments that a party disciplinary committee said “sow division and disunity.”

Speaking of Mandela, his recent hospitalizations have given his country and the world a scare. He no longer plays a political role, yet he will always be a force. South Africans “want him to live forever,” Chikane said.

When he dies, the born frees, along with the rest of the nation, will mourn the father of their country. But they will cope.

“His legacy will live with us,” Chikane added. “Like Martin Luther King, he died, but he’s still with us.”

“So in a sense, I think Mandela will remain with us forever.”

Joe Davidson is a Washington Post columnist, a former South African correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.