Durban, South Africa – Nineteen-year-old Nomfundo Mbhele says she knows all about apartheid.
She says she knows about the racist pass laws, the indignity of separate development under second class citizenship; her mother told her all about it. Twenty years after the country’s first democratic election, that racist regime is long gone.
As a 19-year-old, Mbhele is a born free local, parlance for those born after the end of apartheid. They are the first benefactors of the new South Africa.
Despite her knowledge of South Africa’s history, the teenager is not voting on Wednesday.
“They can say we are born frees but I don’t see the [gains of] 20 years of democracy,” Mbhele says.
Mbhele, who is re-writing her final school exams this year so she might enter a tertiary institution in 2015, becomes animated when explaining her decision.
“Most people say we should vote for change, and we should vote for Madiba [the nickname of recently deceased leader Nelson Mandela]. But I don’t see any change, because there are people living in poverty and there are still people using the bucket [toilet] system from apartheid… something is not right,” she says.
Mbhele is one of the many South Africans born in or after 1994 – comprising about a third of the total population – who did not register for the May 7 elections.
In spite of a concerted effort by political parties and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to draw youth to the polls, born frees make up just 2.5 percent of the 25 million registered voters.
In an election that was meant to mark 20 years of freedom and democracy, and the coming of age of those fortunate enough to have been born after 1994, the scale of apathy among young South Africans has severely tarnished the celebrations.
The attitudes of young South Africans towards democracy have also placed the gains of the past 20 years into perspective.
According to the IEC, 60 percent of citizens in their 20s are registered to vote, while 90 percent of those older than 30 have registered. Wednesday’s election has been touted as a game changer, but despite mounting criticisms of its record, the governing African National Congress (ANC) is likely to score a comprehensive victory, albeit with a reduced majority.
Observers and political analysts say the ANC has become increasingly intolerant to criticism. The introduction of the Protection of State Information Bill, for instance, has drawn the ire of civil society and the media alike.
The ANC has also, over the past decade, been seen as defensive and unwilling to make space for rival parties.
In some of the hotly contested townships across the country, residents have reported rising political intolerance, including violence, and the government has been forced to provide extra security.
Lauren Tracy, a researcher at Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Johannesburg, says this political landscape perpetuated disillusionment among the youth.
Twenty-three-year-old Lithiwe Mzimela, from the Ntuzuma township outside Durban says that she feels free in principle, “but not when it comes to Zuma”.
“I don’t see change in my country so I don’t want to waste my time and energy going to vote knowing I won’t gain anything,” she says.
“Remember what happened with the painting and yet they say it’s a free country, it’s that kind of situation. You never mess with Zuma anyway,” she says.
Voting ‘a responsibility’
The irony of course, is that there has been a tendency to plant inordinate expectation on born frees to relinquish prejudices of their parents. In reality, social and economic conditions for the majority have not dramatically changed since apartheid ended.
Writer and activist Malaika Mahlatsi casts greater aspersions on the notion of the born frees. The author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation, says the problem with born frees is that they simply do not exist.
Mahlatsi says black South Africans are still on the receiving end of structural inequality, poverty and unemployment and the concept was almost devious. It removes apartheid and colonial history as a cause of South Africa’s current economic and social struggles and attempts to make black South Africans “accept our conditions as a product of our own post-1994 choices,” she says.
“There isn’t a black person who is ‘born free’ in a South Africa,” Mahlatsi adds.
|“I don’t want to waste my time and energy going to vote,” says 23-year-old Lithiwe Mzimela|
Most commentators maintain that the low levels of youth participation in this year’s polls point to a number of factors. Few, however, suggest that it is a case of disinterest.
Bandile Masuku, the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) spokesperson says, “Youth are aware, interested, but the registration process was just not packaged well enough for them… and we must all take responsibility for this failure.”
Thabani Ngwira, an IEC spokesperson, says the low numbers do not reflect poorly on the commission’s campaign to encourage youth to vote. He says people have to take personal responsibility for registering; citizens need to understand that only participation can build a democracy.
“People don’t just have a right to vote, it’s a responsibility,” he says.
For Nombuso Zulu, 18, Ngwira’s assertion rings true. She says she didn’t register because she “simply had too much school work”. She now regrets not making the time.
Likewise, Mushtaq Abdool, 21, studying business administration in Chatsworth on the outskirts of Durban, says he just “forgot to register”.
While some youth readily admit their complacency towards the elections, others claim that staying away is a political statement in itself.
“Some are not voting, because they aren’t getting what they want,” says Siyethemba Khumalo, 20, who also will not be casting a ballot. “People are still waiting for houses.”
Responding to claims that voting remained an exercise with no tangible results, Masuku, the ANCYL spokesperson, says that this attitude only illustrated that people were not prepared to be patient. Staying away from elections, he says, only takes us further backwards.
“Development cannot happen for everyone at one time,” Masuku says.
Others say whatever the decision, it should be respected.
“Some are well aware they won’t finish university because education remains so expensive, while others are unlikely to find jobs,” she says.
Above all, young South Africans feel distanced from the political spectacle by frequent reports of corruption and mal-administration.
“I feel far from the process, the corruption has become a virus, consistently putting us down,” Mbhele says. “We are tired of the corruption. It makes us feel disempowered.”
Honouring the past
Despite the electoral apathy among the majority of the youth, some believe that casting a ballot is part of the solution to the country’s woes.
Twenty-one-year old Sithembiso Ngcobo, who forms part of a minority of born frees who will exercise their vote on Wednesday, says young South Africans have a duty to vote. “It’s the least we can do to honour the sacrifices of the past,” he says.
Ngcobo says he worries that many young South Africans underestimate the value of voting because they haven’t fully grasped the injustices of the past.
Just as some had not made time to register, others are voting for the novelty of the experience.
Wesley Ludick-Wesley, 18, admitted that he was not sure why he was voting especially since he was rather convinced his vote wouldn’t make much of a difference. “Everyone says it’s your civic duty to vote, maybe that’s why,” he says with a grin.
Similarly, 18-year-old Zukiswa Ngcobo says she doesn’t think voting is necessary but held a curious belief that it might help her find employment one day.
“Maybe if a potential employer views my ID they’d see I voted and will give me a job,” she says.
As for Nomfundo Mbhele, she admits that her parents remind her every day that she has opportunities they never had. She looks out at Anton Lembede Street, adjacent to City Hall and acknowledges that her parents would have needed a pass under apartheid law to walk these streets freely, as she is able to do today. It’s not enough though, she says.
“It means something to me, and at the same time, it means nothing.”
“My vote is not going to make a difference. Whichever party wins, little will change.”
Additional reporting by Rumana Akoob
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