Johannesburg, South Africa – Kabelo Mahlobogwane, 24, is among a generation of young South Africans often referred to as the “born frees”, those born after the end of apartheid and the transition to democratic rule in 1994.
In Mahlobogwane’s case, he was born a mere six months after Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president.
But like many of his generation, Mhlobogwane feels that the born free moniker has worn thin.
“When I used to engage with my elders about apartheid, I actually learned that everything corrupt that is happening today is exactly what they were fighting against during apartheid. Every inequality is still here,” he said.
Mhlobogwane was a prominent student activist in the #FeesMustFall protests that swept across South African university campuses in 2015 and 2016.
Primarily driven by calls for free tertiary education, he said the protests also spoke to a wider sense of disenchantment with South Africa‘s democratic project among young black South Africans.
“We want change and we want real equality, and we have been militant and unapologetic about that,” he added.
As South Africa heads to the polls in a general election on Wednesday, Mhlobogwane believes that change comes in the shape of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, which is predicted to win more than double the six percent of the vote that it achieved in the 2014 elections, its first year on the ballot.
The EFF’s calls for radical economic transformation, including the nationalisation of banks and mines, as well as the expropriation of white-owned land without compensation, have found fertile ground with many young black South Africans.
Unlike older generations, this demographic also has less of a sense of loyalty to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, based on its past liberation history.
“With the EFF, it’s not about who was a comrade, who went to exile, who led in the forefront of the struggle,” Mhlobogwane said.
But more than half of South Africa’s youth appear to have lost faith in the political system altogether, with as many as six million under-30s not registered on the electoral roll.
‘What is the use of voting?’
Lesego Sedide, 24, who was born and raised in the sprawling Johannesburg township of Alexandra, is among this number.
“What is the use of voting?” he said. “I’ve been living here my whole life and I don’t see any of the changes that have been promised again and again. People don’t have jobs. People don’t have houses. Meanwhile, the politicians are living nice lives in the suburbs.”
Unemployment among the youth in Alexandra, as across much of South Africa, is estimated at more than 50 percent. “Every day is like a weekend here. Young people are just sitting around drinking and taking drugs the whole day,” said Nhlanhla Ruben, a 23-year-old resident and Uber driver, who also said he would not be voting.
“I get why people don’t want to vote. When you look at all the chaos attacking the country and you just see everyone competing against each other, it’s just like, what is my vote going to contribute to any of this?” said Sanele Msiza, 23, an honours student in journalism at the University of Witwatersrand.
However, Msiza took issue with frequent characterisations of South African youth as apathetic, using the #FeesMustFall protests, which she also took part in, by way of an example.
“There’s a lot of political engagement on campus here,” said Msiza. “I think it’s just that young people still often don’t see their views being represented in Parliament, so they find other ways of engaging.”
“A lot of movements around the world that were revolutionary, were started by students,” said Tumelo Modiba, a 21-year-old classmate of Msiza’s. “Our generation, not just in Africa but globally, we want change. We’re tired of just sitting around and taking things as they were.”
On Wednesday, while Msiza said that she would be voting for the EFF, Modiba would be casting her ballot for the ANC. But both harboured doubts about their respective choices’ potential to follow through on their election promises and implement proposed policies. “I think there’s a lot of lip service,” said Msiza.
For Mahlobogwane, scepticism towards South Africa’s political establishment among the youth was an encouraging sign for the future, rather than cause for despondency: “If you look at the recent rallies, a lot of young people no longer want to be told about a free ANC t-shirt or food parcel. A lot of young people want to know about policies,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They are engaged in education and they are aware. For me, there is hope. One day we will live in a country where there is peace, there is equality and economic freedom.”