South African photographer Sipho Gongxeka
Linn Washington Jr./The Root

Thakeng Moreki lives in Orange Farm, a sprawling, impoverished shantytown 40 miles south of Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa—his community a place bypassed by the economic gains that the end of apartheid was supposed to bring to the nation’s poor.

Unemployment exceeds 40 percent in Orange Farm, South Africa’s most populous shantytown, with 350,000 residents. And the lack of opportunity evident across the country falls heavily on the “born frees”—those who grew up after apartheid ended in the early 1990s.

“We have democracy in South Africa but [government] leaders are like: They eat first and then they leave what is left for the people,” Moreki said during an interview last year when South Africa celebrated the 20th anniversary of its democracy, which dawned with the election of Nelson Mandela, the first non-white president of a nation long ruled by white racists.

Moreki, who was 3 years old when Mandela became president, said, “The people fought for democracy, but these leaders forget what they fought for.”

And the dissatisfaction that Moreki feels about the direction of South African democracy is shared by many other born frees: They appreciate the freedoms ushered in by apartheid’s elimination but feel that they haven’t benefited enough from political change.

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“Young whites still enjoy the inheritance of apartheid, and we are still at a disadvantage because the wealth is not properly shared,” said Thula Gumede, 21, a politics and public management major at the University of Johannesburg. “Those who took land and resources still have it.”

Owethu Mbambo, another University of Johannesburg student, said she shares Gumede’s view.

“Affirmative action for blacks in South Africa is attacked as unfair,” Mbambo, 22, said. “Blacks are given the moral burden to ‘get over it.’ We are told to be happy to be free. But it is only a one-way street. White people are not changing like we are being told to change.”

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The African National Congress, the liberation movement turned political party once headed by Mandela, has governed South Africa since 1994. ANC policies have, indeed, brought tremendous change to the country.

The ANC government has built more than a million houses for the poor. Other postapartheid ANC improvements include monthly financial grants that have lifted millions out of profound poverty and expanding a black middle class, known as the “black diamonds,” with affirmative-action-like initiatives. Yet South Africa’s income inequality is among the world’s worst.

Despite tangible improvement under the ANC, dissatisfaction with its governance—compounded by rampant corruption among governmental officials—is spreading. The ANC faced a surprising challenge at the polls last year from the Economic Freedom Fighters, a new political party of young adults disillusioned primarily by high levels of unemployment.

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“Our economy is not producing jobs. Most of the new jobs are in the public sector,” said the research director of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Lerato Moloi. “There are more welfare recipients in this country than there are employed people. I’m not sure how sustainable this is.”

Many who fought against apartheid understand the dissatisfactions among the Born Frees.

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Richard “Bricks” Mokolo, a paralegal and community activist who runs the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Center, said neoliberal economic policies adopted by the ANC, under pressure from entities including the United States, have structurally excluded millions.

“Shortly after the election of Mandela, I realized that the policies the government was adopting would make poor people suffer more than under apartheid,” Mokolo said. He once led a successful fight to stop ANC government privatization of water service in Orange Farm. “The government and the private sector are not creating jobs. Even college graduates are unemployed.”

Although they face a future that is far from rosy, most of the born frees are determined to contribute toward improving all sectors of South African society.

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Sipho Gongxeka, 25, a Soweto-born photographer, seeks, for example, to challenge “stereotypes” with his art.

“The media portrays women as accessories for men, but women are powerful. My mom raised five children without a husband,” Gongxeka said.

Sandile Mdlalose, born in Durban, lived in a Johannesburg shelter for homeless youths until he helped to establish a collective that owns two stores selling crafts in upscale Johannesburg neighborhoods.

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“The born frees are trying to be all we want to be, but there is propaganda from the top reminding us of the past,” Mdlalose said. “At some point we have to let go of the past.”

Linn Washington Jr. is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.