Guest Column

Growing up with democracy

2019-04-29 11:17
South Africans gather across the country for Zuma Must Fall protests. Picture: Deon Ferreira

South Africans gather across the country for Zuma Must Fall protests. Picture: Deon Ferreira

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When South Africa held its first democratic elections, I was about to turn 6 years old. A few years later, when my world changed, I got a better idea of what this "new, democratic South Africa" meant to me, writes Mpho Raborife.

My earliest memory of elections, politics or the ANC is of a round sticker in the living room of our house in Rockville, Soweto, many years ago.

I can't remember clearly now whether it was just the ANC flag in the centre of the sticker or whether it was Nelson Mandela's face. But I knew that the black, yellow and green colours represented something we valued and supported as a household.

Besides Mandela, who we all grew to respect, love and associate with the party, I had always had a fascination with another man in the movement: Cyril Ramaphosa.

As the only little child in the family at the time, I spent a lot of time around adults and so ended up absorbing the conversations they would have. This is where I think my small fascination for Ramaphosa came from. Someone, somewhere in our household – which saw many visitors from all walks of life – must have praised him in heaps and that stayed with me. I say this because every time I would see him on the television or in a newspaper or magazine, I would always tell my mother that if she wasn't with my dad, I would want her to be with him.

"Mama, ke o monna wagago!" (Mama, here is your husband!) I would say in that excited fan-girl tone whenever he appeared on TV.

I don't recall ever hearing my mother saying Cyril was her crush, but she might have. Or maybe I just thought in my little head "this man would be mom's next best thing after my dad".

When South Africa held its first democratic elections, I was about to turn 6 years old. I remember, vaguely, that it was an important day and that people were huddled around a TV watching with concentration. I can't say for sure that I was one of them, I don't think I knew just how historic that day was for our country. I was probably playing with toys or other children while Mandela was taking that oath to be the country's first democratic president.

Introduction to other races

A few years later, when my world changed, I got a better idea of what this "new, democratic South Africa" meant to me when I was to be moved from my township school in Dobsonville to a multiracial school in the leafy suburbs of Constantia Kloof.

I had been surrounded by black people my entire life. I had attended a creche in Dobsonville where most of my family lived, and every neighbour knew one other. After creche I had gone to a school in the "hood" and was taught by women I would also see at church service on a Sunday morning. They were my mothers when mine was at work, teaching other people's children too.

This introduction to other races was a shock to my 11-year-old system. The only other time I had ever seen people of other races was in shared public spaces like malls when we went shopping, or on TV. Other than that, all I knew was Soweto, and Soweto being the largest township in the country still is made up of, mostly, black people.

nelson mandela

Nelson Mandela campaigns ahead of the election in 1994. (Photo: Tom Stoddart)

I went from being taught by a teacher who looked and sounded like my mother, where I spoke seTswana freely with my classmates during and after class, to moving to a classroom where speaking my home language was not approved of and I could only do it with other black learners during break or in the minibus ride back to home. On top of that I had to learn a new, difficult language called Afrikaans by a teacher with an equally difficult surname. You can imagine how the year 1999 was for me, but I eventually got used to things.

This was part of the ANC government's way of undoing the damage of racial segregation by the apartheid regime, as well as to try and address the unequal playing field in education by opening the gates for black students to learn at schools with adequate resources that would give them a fighting chance at having successful futures by becoming whatever they dreamed of.

Getting an education

Fast-forward to 2006; we were now 12 years into democracy, and I matriculated, ready to forge my path to becoming a journalist. My need to go to university was slightly hampered by the fact that my parents had by now both retired from their jobs, and the fees for the institutions I wanted to learn at were not cheap. With help from my siblings, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, good marks and bursaries I managed to enrol.

The NSFAS was established to help students from poor and working-class families like mine were able to overcome their socio-economic backgrounds to access their constitutional right to higher education. NSFAS enabled the use of higher education as a tool to change the trajectory of a black child's life and their family's future.

I graduated with two degrees from two different institutions as a result of this.

My first job came directly after completing my Honour's year. I managed to bag an internship in 2012, now 18 years into our democracy.

I used a well-known bus service to get to and from work from Dobsonville to Sandton, which would take around two hours. The stipend was enough to get me to and from work daily, using a monthly bus tag – the cheapest and therefore longest transport option there was. Millions still rely on this form of transport daily, despite the bus company's unimpressive track record when it comes to safety, efficiency and accountability for injuries caused in transit.

It's 2019 now, 25 years into our democracy and that bus ride from Dobsonville to Sandton still takes around two hours, barring any breakdowns or accidents along the route. When you earn little, you look for the cheapest ways to get where you need to be even if your life might potentially be danger.

Proving to the world the rainbow nation is 'working'

I am still paying back my student loans but am grateful that I was able to get the loans to continue my studies. As a result of the rainbow nation assimilation exercise thrust on my generation in the mid-'90s I realised that I am more fluent in English than my mother tongue, mainly because I was focused on blending into my new environment as quickly as possible. This is coupled with, I feel, the subtle pressure on my generation to be the face of the "new South Africa" and to prove to the world that the rainbow nation idea is "working".

I live in what I think is a "diverse" society now, but it's only because I work in the corporate centre of the city and I live in the "suburban" part of town.

Cyril Ramaphosa,Cyril,ANC,Ramaphosa

Cyril Ramaphosa campaigns for the 2019 election at an ANC rally. (Photo: Gallo Images)

I often wonder, if I had not been afforded the opportunity to study further and had ended up unemployed, where would my opportunities to leave the township and see a different world have come from? I might have stayed in the same place that I grew up in, watching the world change while I remain still. That kind of bleak reality breeds anger and resentment and that ultimately leads to destruction.

The latest official unemployment rate in South Africa is 27.1%. And among people under 35, the rate is about 53% – among the highest in the world, AFP reports.

A country trying

In the days leading up to the general elections, political parties have dangled the promise of jobs during their respective campaigns to win the youth's vote.

Despite this, reflecting on how far South Africa has come over the past 25 years for a young, black African girl from Soweto, I think we're not doing too badly.

The ANC is still in power and we all know they have many skeletons in many closets. But there are also some well-running machines that are helping to keep the democracy running. Our freedom as the press is one such machine. Many countries, including democracies, can't say the same.

Our judicial and Chapter Nine institutions still function independently, working to keep our democratic pillars strong and separate.

We may have differing opinions on the effectiveness of the several commissions of inquiry that have been established but how many countries and governments do you know have taken such steps in efforts to root out corruption in their midst while still in power?

We are the same country that, after the horrific crimes by the apartheid regime that traumatised us as a nation opted to get into a room, victim and perpetrator, to try and hear the extent of the evil that had ruled over us, in order to find a way to try and forge a new identity for ourselves as a society after that dark era.

ANC march

ANC member march in Tshwane. (Photo: Thapelo Maphakela)

And we're still trying.

Our democratically-elected government took over a country while simultaneously running experiments to see what would work and what wouldn't. And I believe they're still doing so today, in different ways with the different challenges it faces, some of the greatest being self-inflicted, but which government on this planet doesn't have any self-inflicted wounds?

We're still young, we're going to make some mistakes along the way but we're on a journey to maturity and many other countries are already looking at us in awe for the resilience we have in wanting to fix our messes, however we choose to.

I say this knowing that my story won't ring true for the next person, and that's okay.

Despite the grim realities that reveal themselves by the day, in my opinion, for a 25-year-old, you're not doing too badly, South Africa.

And that fascination with Cyril? I still refer to him as "monna wagago" to her. She still smiles quietly.

- Raborife is night news editor at News24. 

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  cyril rama­phosa  |  democracy  |  freedom day
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