Will the born-free generation – young people born after the collapse of apartheid and who are casting their vote this year for the first time – have an impact on the May 7 elections?
They’re “born free, as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows,” as singer Andy Williams croons. But, more to the point, they’re disillusioned, mostly unemployed and angry – and they are emotionally free to vote for whomever they like.
And that, apparently, is something that doesn’t sit too well with President Jacob Zuma. Indeed, so irked does the president appear to be that he says the whole idea of a ‘Born Free generation’ is “plain propaganda” and people who use the term are making these young people out to be “idiots”.
Some political commentators, though, believe Born Frees – about half a million young men and women born a year or after the ANC came into power in 1994 and hence not part of the ‘struggle generation’ of the 1980s or the ‘lost generation’ of the early 1990s – are a real phenomenon and could play a significant role in the elections.
Keith Somerville, a senior research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, teacher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and who also edits the Africa News and Analysis website, www.africajournalismtheworld.com, says how Zuma came to the conclusion that being ‘Born Free’ was being equated with being an idiot “is not clear, but his nervousness about this generation is”.
Quoted on the website africanarguments.org, Somerville said Zuma’s retort was not just redolent of the ANC’s sensitivity to real or implied criticism, but was also “a measure of the concern felt by the ANC about the voting intentions of the more than a million new voters potentially about to appear on the electoral roll”.
Just over 600 000 South Africans were born in the year that the ANC was voted into office, with a similar number in the following two years. Not all will register to vote, but there could be half a million new voters casting their ballots for the first time at this year’s general election. This constitutes over 5% of the electorate.
“The ANC,” says Somerville, “is concerned that many of this generation will not register to vote, but is perhaps even more worried that those who do might not simply vote for the ANC as a matter of course, not being of the ‘struggle’ or ‘lost’ generations of the 1980s and the early 1990s, or what could be called the grand apartheid generation that preceded it.
“For those generations, the ANC is still the party of struggle and liberation, even if its physical role was limited and it had to integrate and subordinate the UDF (United Democratic Front), Cosatu (Congress of SA Trade Unions) and other domestic ‘struggle’ organisations once they were unbanned in 1990.”
He says Zuma is “extremely sensitive to criticism and negative media coverage, and the ANC is constantly on the offensive against perceived criticism or slights – just witness the vituperation from the ANC’s spokespersons over art students who recently produced T-shirts mocking the president.
“The term ‘Born Free’ has been in use for some time, but the ANC has become increasingly sensitive to its use, thus Zuma’s tirade and the attempt to portray it as an insult to youths. There’s a simple reason for his anger: the term implies a generation that didn’t know apartheid, for whom it will be harder for the ANC to portray itself as the natural party of government and its now inflated account of its dominant role in fighting for black South Africans during the struggle.”
The ANC, he says, is under pressure because it is not delivering jobs to young South Africans, is riven by factions and pressed, though not yet too strongly, by new movements and parties. “One of those new movements, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of Julius Malema, may prove to be a vocal, rather dangerous and potentially damaging flash in the pan, but at the moment it scares some in the ANC who fear it could attract young voters who did not take part in the struggle or experience apartheid.
“They fear that unemployed or disadvantaged young South Africans will warm to the extravagant promises and violent criticisms made by Malema, as the radical, bling prophet of a better life for the unemployed and marginalised young.”
Zuma, says Somerville, addressed this without mentioning the EFF by name, when he told an audience in Atteridgeville that, “There are a lot of people who make empty promises. You need to know there is an organisation that fought for freedom.”
The lion’s share
Opined Sommerville: “Just how much the ‘freedom’ selling point would work with a generation born free but condemned to poor service delivery, rampant corruption in government and the prospects of 50% plus unemployment, remained to be seen.”
The ANC, he says, may not be about to lose office, “but it wants the lion’s share of the Born Free vote as it seeks, as Zuma has said repeatedly, 75% of the vote and so the ability to totally dominate parliament, free to amend the Constitution and rule without hindrance”.
This ambition would, however, be hard to achieve. “The EFF is unlikely to seriously challenge for power, but could leech away crucial votes. Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang party might also take some of the votes of educated, middle-class voters (old and young), sick of the corrupt and increasingly violent and intolerant image of the ANC, and the DA could increase its share of the vote while retaining power in the Western Cape, to the ANC’s immense irritation. This could all eat away at the size of the ANC majority, though without threatening its hold on power.”
As the older generations die off, the ANC would have to capture the new voters – first of all ensuring they register and then ensuring they vote, and vote for the ANC.
In the 2011 municipal elections, 23.65 million South Africans were registered to vote, but another five million were eligible but not registered. Only 57.64% actually voted.
In 2009, however, 77.3% voted in the national elections – down by 8% from the previous national vote.
“Many young people, as happens across the world, are apathetic about elections and formal politics, as they see their problems of unemployment and poor prospects not seriously addressed by the elected government,” says Somerville. “The ANC is struggling to overcome apathy in the Born Free generation and is worried that it could turn to hostility, encouraged by the rabble-rousing speeches of Malema, seeking to harness youth frustrations and anger.”
Coming of age
Even The New Yorker Magazine in the United States has taken an interest in South Africa’s Born Frees. A recent article about photographer Krisanne Johnson’s visit to the country to document the Born Frees says: “Nineteen years after the beginning of multiracial democracy in South Africa, the Born Frees – the first generation of the so-called Rainbow Nation – have come of age.
“These young South Africans, whose parents lived through the transition from a brutal system of white-led racial segregation under apartheid, to a country that sought to become a democracy with 12 national languages and one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, have developed a voice and identity of their own.”
Johnson, meanwhile, told the magazine that the Born Frees “tell a story of a democracy that, like them, is complex and young”.
She quotes Lisa-Joan Coltman, 16, who was born three years after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first president, as saying: “All of my friends are like different colours, if you could say it like that. I know what apartheid was, and we will remember what happened and respect it. But we don’t look back at the past that much.”
Says Johnson: “I hoped to show quiet, real moments in the lives of young South Africans. The world is watching how they will continue Nelson Mandela’s legacy.”
The X factor
Professor Steven Friedman, political analyst and director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg doesn’t believe the ruling ANC need fear at all the impact the Born Frees will have on the elections. “Although the generation may have changed, its ‘X’ is likely to remain much the same,” he says.
“A frequent theme as we prepare for elections is the ‘born free’ factor: this is the first election in which the generation born after 1994 are eligible to register and some of us insist that this will change how people vote. Registration figures are watched closely to see how many newly eligible voters sign up because it is assumed that the ANC may battle to attract their support.
“All of which is likely to prove a distraction, since there is little reason to believe that the next generation will vote differently to its elders. The hype about ‘Born Free’ is more a prejudice than a sound analysis.”
The most obvious reason for doubting the ‘Born Free’ theory is that it has probably been disproved already, Friedman adds. “People who had just reached voting age in our last general election were three years old in 1994, yet they voted no differently to their parents. The ‘Born Free’ theory assumes that people who do not remember apartheid will vote differently to those who do. But how many of us remember our first three years? The last round of new voters were not weighed down by memories of their infancy. Those who were eligible for the first time in our last local election were aged one in 1994; there is no evidence that they voted much differently to their elders.”
This should not be surprising, says Friedman. “Political attitudes are not only shaped by experience – they are also products of the influence of others. And those we are most likely to be influenced by are our elders. This ensures that there are no sharp changes in political attitudes between generations. It explains why, in older democracies, some regions have voted for the same party for 100 years or more – political loyalties are passed down from generation to generation. There is no reason why voters should be different.”
He says there are two other reasons, both specific to this country, which suggest that the ‘Born Free’ analysis “is a thinly disguised prejudice. First, those who peddle this theory do not believe that all newly eligible voters will break with their parents – no one is suggesting that the DA, Inkatha Freedom Party or Freedom Front Plus will lose voters born after 1994. So only one group of voters is likely to change its mind, presumably because they were not voting rationally, but because they still remember apartheid.
“There is no evidence that any group of voters is less rational than any others. South Africans vote their identities – we tend to support parties whom we believe speak for people like us. That is as true of whites as of blacks, of people in the suburbs as of those in townships or shack settlements. And so all our voters are likely to be strongly influenced by the previous generation. Theories which assume that only some of us have been voting rationally are campaign speeches, not explanations.
“Second, the ‘Born Free’ theory assumes that people born after 1994 really are free in the sense that they have never experienced apartheid-era realities. This is either hopelessly naive or based on a very strong desire to avoid unpleasant realities. It is not an explanation of voting behaviour.
“Anyone who believes that South Africans no longer care about race has not been paying attention: while we often speak to each other in code, similar racial attitudes to those of the apartheid period often lurk behind what we say to each other.
“Nor have apartheid era realities disappeared. Poverty and inequality are still pervasive and they take on a strongly racial form. New black voters in 2014 will often experience very similar realities to those their parents faced two decades ago,” says Friedman.
Whatever factors shape voting patterns in South Africa in 2014, the arrival of the first generation of post-1994 voters will not be among them, Friedman believes.
“The similarities between the ‘Born Free’ vote and that of the last generation are likely to far outweigh the differences.”
So, whether or not the young Born Frees will have an impact on the May 7 elections appears open to serious debate. One thing, though, seems clear: they are “born free and life is worth living. But only worth living ‘cause they’re born free...”