Life was better under apartheid: When freedom is no longer enough

Eleanor du Plooy

“Life was better under apartheid”, Phiwe* said to me.

Five simple words repeated, more or less word for word, as I facilitated intergenerational focus group discussions with youth in rural and urban spaces in three provinces, in the past two months.

As I listened to these words in various rooms in Warrenton, Vryheid and Cape Town the life experiences of the Phiwes, Chantels and Boitumelos* kept flashing in my mind.

Taken on its own it is alarming. Taken as a response to a question about their experiences in post-apartheid South Africa, it tells us that as a nation we are failing our youth. These are young, black African, Coloured South Africans, the very children of those who suffered under the yoke of a system of oppression, the supposedly Born Frees. They are not the words of the far right, nor those who benefited directly by virtue of being white.

Reflecting on this in June is particularly hard. This month as a nation we celebrate the role played by youth. We give it themes – this year’s theme is The Year of OR Tambo: Advancing Youth Economic Empowerment. We think back and memorialise the sacrifices of Soweto, Hector Peterson, Ashley Kriel and so many more.

For Phiwe, Chantel and Boitumelo, this symbolism and dedication is mostly meaningless. Their lived reality doesn’t match the espoused ideals of youth policies, our vaunted Constitution and “radical economic transformation”. It is so jarring a disconnect it is almost Orwellian.

The lived experiences for the large majority of youth in this country remain marked by economic exclusion, limited access to quality education and pervasive and continued inequality. The struggle of youth for economic empowerment and ultimately freedom is hampered by many factors chief among which is the high level of unemployment. Young people are the hardest hit by this and remain the most vulnerable.

According to the latest social profile of youth, published by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) the proportion of people between the ages of 15 and 34 not in employment, education or training, has remained at around 30% since 2012. This combined with the high levels of crime and violence in communities across the country makes youth susceptible to getting involved in illicit activities in efforts to change their situation. 

When asked why they thought apartheid life was better, it became evident that it wasn’t a longing for the return of apartheid or white rule. Rather, it was an expression of a desire for certain securities they perceive apartheid offered which includes a guarantee of some type of employment however menial, and safer communities.

The youth I speak with somehow imagine that the struggles that they face today were either absent or less pervasive during our apartheid past. This understanding of the past might be informed by a host of factors including a limited understanding of the extent of the brutality of apartheid policies and how it informed and shaped the lives of South Africans. It could also be a mere echoing of the views expressed by their parent generation. It does however signal something far more serious – that people are willing to forfeit fundamental freedoms if it means that basic material needs are met. It reminds me how, in certain areas in the rest of the world these last few decades, voters have been willing to give up certain freedoms for greater ‘security’.

What does it then mean when a section of South African youth – soon to be the largest cohort in our nation – express the unimaginable? What implications does this have for youth political participation? For our nation-state? For our body politic?

If young people continue to experience little change in their material conditions and political parties continue to leave a trail of broken promises in their wake then feelings of deep mistrust in the government and democratic processes will take root.

We need justice of equality, yes. But equality beyond identity. We need justice in income, wealth and livelihoods. We need socio-economic justice. For every South African and, perhaps, especially for this country’s youth.

There is work that needs to be done if we are to attempt to address poverty, unemployment and inequality. If we are committed to creating a South Africa that reflects the changes that we want to see we need to boldly face these challenges with urgency and consistency.

*Names have been changed.

- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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