South Africa’s born-free people

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South Africa’s born-free people


Some of the South African National Youth Orchestra walk on a beach in Cape Town. Zinhle Mfaba and Nina Cilliers became friends when they played in the orchestra. ‘When we’re playing together, we’re really together – we’re there for the same reason,’ says Mfaba.

2019 is 25 years since South Africa’s first democratic elections. The elections ended white minority rule, made Nelson Mandela president, and gave all South Africans equal political rights. Ilvy Njiokiktjien photographs the young South Africans who only know the life of the ‘rainbow nation’ after apartheid.

Mzimkulu Ntakana is 21 and an economics student. He says, ‘I can do anything I want, study anything I want, go anywhere I want. There are no barriers now.’ This is what ‘born free’ in South Africa means to him. But 28-year-old Candice Mama asks, ‘Born free from what? I believe that people can only be born free when there are no more economic inequalities in South Africa.’


Bulisani Dube, 25, of the Twelve Apostles Church prays for Nelson Mandela when he was in hospital in 2013 on Yeoville Hill, Johannesburg.

People had high hopes after Nelson Mandela spoke of his idea of a ‘rainbow nation’ but, 25 years later, many of the ‘born-free’ generation still have problems with youth unemployment of between 35 and 50 per cent. ‘If you don’t get a job, you make your own,’ says Innocent Moreku, 22. He sells second-hand clothes on the side of the road. Most of the young men I interviewed believe that white South Africans still have better opportunities. ‘Their grandfathers and great-grandfathers have been working and saving money but our grandfathers have been fighting,’ says Zinhle Mfaba, 24.


Students of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg at their graduation ceremony. The university teaches students about leadership, politics, and how to start a business.

When black South Africans make money, they often have to look after family members – also known as the ‘black tax’. Fashion designer Cindy Mfabe, 27, says, ‘We have to work double time because we have all this damage to fix.’

Most say they would be happy to mix with other race groups but the effects of apartheid still stops them. ‘I don’t live in a place where I can meet a lot of white people and have white friends,’ says Zinhle Mfaba. Zinhle lives in Soweto, which was first a black township and is still mostly black today.

Kevin du Plessis, 28, says he has a lot more friends who are white, like him, because ‘you don’t find that many black kids that speak Afrikaans’ in Gauteng province.


Young students in Kommandokorps train in Carolina, South Africa. The Kommandokorps is a racist organization that has camps in school holidays for white Afrikaner teenagers. It teaches them self-defence against the ‘black enemy’. The group’s leader calls himself ‘Colonel’ Franz Jooste. He served with the South African Defence Force under apartheid.

Before the 8 May elections very few of the young people I spoke to planned to vote. Some feel guilty about this because they know their right to vote was hard won. But they say the corruption scandals of recent years have made them lose faith in politics. But many are still hopeful about the future. As Wilmarie Deetlefs, 24, says, ‘South Africa needs a new start. I think that’s our generation. We are the new start.’


Lauren Japhta, 18, in her prom dress. She is proud that she finished Phoenix High School in Manenberg, Cape Town. ‘When it closed down earlier this year due to violence, I had to stay inside. It was scary.’


Zakithi Buthelezi (left, 27) notices people often treat him differently when they find out he has a white girlfriend. He says they become friendlier. For his girlfriend, 24-year-old Wilmarie Deetlefs (right), it’s mostly the opposite. ‘Find a man of your own colour,’ a taxi driver once said to her.


Children play in Manenberg, Cape Town, where there are gangs. The wall reads ‘I want to play free’ and ‘Enough is enough’.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien is a photographer and journalist in the Netherlands. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and Telegraph Magazine and mostly is about Africa.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)