The F-word: Born free, but still no better off

2013-06-24 10:00

These days, one can hardly read a newspaper or follow social media without meeting the phenomenon of the born-free generation.

Political parties are excited about the prospect of the born-frees – described as those people born after the advent of democracy in SA – voting for the first time.

We are told they will be game-changers because they are not as beholden to struggle rhetoric as those who were born unfree seemingly are.

Political opposition parties in particular, especially those that style themselves as “postracial”, salivate at the prospect of these youngsters voting for the first time.

As with many en vogue concepts, the born-free phenomenon rides on many half-truths.

A more honest appraisal of this group would cause us to call them what they truly are: the “born-after-the-end-of-apartheid” generation.

It is a clumsy phrase. It is not as “cool” as the more common Neet (not in employment, education or training), a term that includes both the born unfree as well as those born with the vote.

Before we call anyone a born-free, we must interrogate what it is they are supposedly free from and what benefits there are in that freedom, as opposed to what existed before it.

A careful unpacking of the answer reveals that other than the so-called born-free not having the yoke of legislated racism around their necks, many are as unfree as their parents and grandparents were.

According to studies by, a think-tank that longitudinally probes the macroeconomic framework across Africa, the so-called born-frees are the worst off of the Neet.

One study reads: “Indeed, 38% have no education at all and another 40% have some or full primary education only. Of the inactive youth, 47% have gone without food several times or more during the last year. Inactive youth are 40% more likely than the average young African to live in a rural area. Only those who work for a family business without pay have a worse record across these characteristics.”

But we don’t need an academic study to tell us this. A casual walk through any township or village tells the story better than any graph or PowerPoint presentation.

For example, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga keeps postponing the introduction of the basic norms and standards that would make being a born-free more meaningful.

Like their parents, who were probably part of the generation that took to the streets on June?16, the “born-frees” are still waiting for the promise that education will be “free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”, to say nothing of the other promise that “higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit”.

At the same time, this generation of first-time voters is, in many ways, better off than their parents, as student loans have become far more accessible and cover a lot more than just tuition fees.

Yet the landmines that most of our children must navigate around to seek education shows that the state is still not serious about giving meaning to the advantages of being born after the end of apartheid.

Some opposition parties are happy to exploit this reality but would never own up to this being the consequence of decades of institutionalised white racism, and not only the ANC’s political indifference.

They oppose measures to correct the wrongs, arguing that all children who were “born free” have the same chances in life.

They tell us that all they need to do is work hard and their lives will change, as though that is the only reason some people live in leafy suburbs and others in squatter camps.

Young people deserve better than sweet nothings from political parties. They know that they are as unfree as their parents were.

If political organisations don’t understand this and fail to take them seriously, perhaps they do not deserve their votes, which they so badly covet.

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