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.

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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.

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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."

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."

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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."

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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."

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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.

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"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.