Young South Africans
‘BORN FREES’ COME OF AGE
Words: Emilie Lukman
South Africa, a country whose roots are deeply intertwined with racial conflicts and discrimination, applied the model of the liberal democracy in 1994. Before that, social background, belonging and hierarchies dominated the minds of South Africans for generations. Today, 18 years later the ‘born frees’ are living as citizens with rights and opportunities. However the feeling of belonging still plays a role in the development of young South Africans.
Stanley Yonamu is 18 years old and is attending high school in Cape Town. He belongs to the first generation of the ‘born frees’ and shares his years of growth with the childhood of a democratic South Africa. This year, according to Statistics South Africa, 600 thousand people in South Africa have come of age simultaneously with the democracy. Stanley and his contemporaries have only known the post-apartheid South Africa. Nevertheless concerns of belonging are still an on-going issue, despite the democratic ideals of equality and individuality.
Growing up in a suburb in Cape Town with financially-challenged families dominating the area, Stanley was friends with a group of local boys. When he was younger they would hang out in the streets and play with each other every day. But when he attended a different primary school to his friends, Stanley learnt the complications involved in moving from one social reality to another. Since then, his feeling of where he belonged changed. ‘Me and my old friends grew distant after I left for another school and they went their way. My life took a different turn to the way their lives turned out.’
In the new school, Stanley was the only child in his class not to have white skin. He started noticing, he explained, around grade two. ‘It was a small school and everyone knew each other but I didn’t get a chance to know everyone the same way as other people did. I had my few close friends who I got along with, but I didn’t have the same popularity,’ he explained. Being caught between belonging with his friends in the suburbs and his classmates in school, Stanley sensed the difficulties of belonging at an early stage of his life.
Moving on from the social position he had shared with his friends at home, Stanley would now be fighting for acceptance among his classmates in a predominantly white school. Coming home from school, wearing his school uniform, he would pass his old group of friends in the street. They would be hanging around the shops, smoking and not understanding why his priorities had changed, and why he didn’t hang out with them anymore.
‘I tried to greet them most of the times, but I don’t think they tried to understand why I didn’t always hang out with them. I felt excluded from what they were doing, and most of the time I just stayed at home after school.’
Having to let go of his old friends, due to his change of life style, wasn’t easy for Stanley. But as he sat on the bench in the high school yard with an upright posture and told his story, the determination in his eyes, indicated that when meeting resistance it is not in his nature to give in.
Born free to belong anywhere
Prof Francis B Nyamnjoh teaches anthropology at UCT and has dedicated years of his research to the politics of belonging. He outlined that the feeling of belonging is connected with habit and recognisability. ‘Instinctively you want to relate to those with whom it will take you very little effort to relate, and with whom you share language and outlook on the world. And you also tend to relate with those of the same social position as yourself,’ Nyamnjoh explained.
According to Prof Nyamnjoh, the consequences of a change of position can be explained from an ethnic perspective. Breaking away from the social connections known from childhood is also breaking with close-knit ties and shared memories. Ethnicity is defined through birth and relationships, and if these are questioned or damaged, you’ll have to create a new sense of belonging somewhere else.
Prof Nyamnjoh continued to explain that we, as human beings, tend to sheepishly reproduce our social background, but we will question it as we go along, to make it fit into a given context. ‘In the game of life we constantly pick and choose from the tools that we have accumulated. And these tools can be anything from ethnicity to language or place of belonging.’
The fight of fitting
“‘Democracy would be wonderful if everybody was on the same playing field. But life, unfortunately is formed by hierarchies. So therefore democracy has to be realistic and reflect and accommodate those hierarchies,’ said Prof Nyamnjoh.”
This year the democratic South Africa has been fighting for equal opportunities and joint influence among people for 18 years. In spite of growing up in a free South Africa, Stanley still had to fight in order to fit in and be accepted among different social and ethnic groups.
‘Democracy would be wonderful if everybody was on the same playing field. But life, unfortunately is formed by hierarchies. So therefore democracy has to be realistic and reflect and accommodate those hierarchies,’ Prof Nyamnjoh said, presenting his doubts on whether the liberal model of democracy can actually bring equality into the South African community.
‘Democracy is not adapted to the context here in South Africa. It is like selling a Barbie-sized dress to people of human size. And if it doesn’t fit you, it is you who is the problem not the dress. And that way of thinking is problematic,’ he said. To fit democratic thinking into South Africa, a change is needed at the administrative level in government. The best way to be in charge, Prof Nyamnjoh proposed, is to allow the people to be in charge of certain aspects of their own lives. To allow mutual accommodation.
The struggle of belonging is not only fought on an individual level, but on a global level as well. In a global context, Africa tends to be placed and perceived by others as never quite measuring up. The structure of power relations affects Africa negatively. But, as Prof Nyamnjoh puts it, ‘Africans have refused to celebrate victimhood. They believe that they can draw on their inner strength and make a difference in their life despite the structures that are very oppressive.’
Improving the teamwork
The matter of belonging, however, is of great importance if one is to understand the democratic development of South Africa and to understand where it can still be improved. Archbishop Desmond Tutu commented on the development of South Africa since 1994 in the Sunday Times two days after Freedom Day on the 27 April 2012. ‘If we are to improve our performance, we must improve our teamwork, which begins with our own understanding that we are members of one team. Our hopes and aspirations are tied up not just in ourselves and our own material well-being, but also in each other,’ he proclaimed.
Stanley Yanomu agreed with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the meaning of belonging as being a part of ‘something bigger than you alone’. But on the question of where he belongs, he hesitates. ‘To be honest I don’t feel like I belong a lot of the time. I no longer fit into my old group of friends. In primary school I did fit in to a certain extent, but then again, there were always lines between the two.’
The team spirit that Archbishop Tutu asks for still has to be cultivated in the South African society in order to create a harmonic country. For if the organism shall prosper, he explained, it requires healthy co-operative cells.
Crossing over the tracks
In a country like South Africa, thoughts of belonging are omnipresent and a matter of general concern among people remaining in or changing fields. Stanley, nevertheless seems to have cracked the code of high school life and is now the captain of the school’s volleyball team, participates in ballroom dance competitions and does athletics, at the same time he is working
hard to get marks that can ensure him a spot at university.
Stanley managed to cross the track between two social groups. And this is the kind of development Prof Nyamnjoh calls for.
‘Because we police the matter of belonging very rigidly we find people falling through these cracks. But if we instead are not too rigid about belonging, then we begin to see what actually happens. I believe that if South Africans are mutually tolerant to each other, the true richness of a democratic multicultural society will come through.
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