Intergenerational Conflicts on the Future of South Africa

In this particular post, I wanted to analyze an experience I had within my first two weeks of being in South Africa. Through this experience I was able to explore an apparent conflict between the younger South African generation and their parent generation when speaking about the people’s’ hopes for the country’s’ future. Before I delve in, it is important for me to acknowledge that my race, class and nationality greatly informs the way in which I interpret what I hear and experience. It is also important, as an American, that I recognize the power of discourse and representation. As someone who comes from a western society, I understand how processes such as globalization, colonization and exploitation, have created unequal power imbalances between western and “non-western” countries where non-western societies have been given little power to globally represent or “speak for” themselves. This is apparent in the ways in which people from western societies think about the people of non-western societies despite these countries’ unique histories and cultures. South Africa is a Middle Income Emerging Country with a complex history and has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. This is not to over-romanticize South Africa as the perfect “rainbow nation” but as Americans, we need to challenge the ways in which we understand people from other countries, cultures and backgrounds. With all of that being said, it is not my intention to “present” or “speak for” South African people and their struggles for liberation. I am simply re-presenting and analyzing a first-hand experience I’ve had while in Cape Town, South Africa. [Disclaimer: For the sake of other people’s privacy, I will not be sharing the names of the folks I speak of]

On September 8th, my classmates and I went to a series of open books talks at the Fugard Theater in Cape Town. Each talk was about an hour long and had at least 3–4 people speaking about a particular topic or conflict occurring in South Africa. At one of the talks, “Decolonisation of Institutions” an English professor was leading the conversation with two recent University alums who were both engaged in on-campus protests regarding race and gender politics in academia. One student, was a woman who identified as queer, African feminist. She is fierce with passion when it comes to dismantling systems of oppression and allowed that to come through when she spoke about how she believed black liberation is directly linked to the need for Black South Africans to decolonize their minds. When asked their thoughts on why are the “born free”, or younger generation, is doing away with the desire of their parents’ generation to “Transform” South Africa post-apartheid, this student responded (and I am loosely summarizing based off of notes I wrote in my journal) “We don’t want to reform! We want to completely reImagine the South African society! We need to do away with this homophobic, racist, sexiest, ableist fuckery!” She goes on to explain that the future of South Africa requires society to embrace decolonization on all forms and platforms including the acceptance of decolonized thinkers, artists, teachers, professors, health care professionals and so on and so forth. She goes on to criticize the parent’s generation’s desire to “Transform the Nation” by asking “Who is now behind the Transformation movement? White people! Yes! They want us to desire to integrate and stay complacent! Decolonization is about Reclamation. It’s about those who have been dis-empowered to, on their own, radically transform society. It is not up to those who already have power to do so!” In my study abroad program, many of us are actively engaged in conversations about black consciousness and dismantling systems of oppression in the United States so as the students spoke about doing away with the “fuckery that is patriarchy” and the need for black folks to “decolonize” their minds, we clapped, snapped and cheered with affirmation.

After the talk, many of the students in my program exclaimed about how dope the conversation was and exchanged some of the most salient quotes we managed to jot down. When the students on the panel came into the theater lobby, we asked to take pictures with them and thanked them for their time and complimented them on their passion for black liberation. We then engaged in conversations about our own activism surrounding race and gender in the States. As we continued, our excited conversation over a glass of wine, we were approached by a woman who we have met when we first arrived in Cape Town. As she sat down, we read the look on her face which showed that she did not share the same amount of excitement as we did. She began “I did not like that girl, one bit!” Quickly, our excitement was hushed as we sat in a curious silence to listen for her feedback about the talk. The woman goes on to say that she believed the youth are too worried about starting trouble and being disruptive and not rationally thinking about how to achieve their goals. She says (& again, I am summarizing) “That girl was just being loud and she was very arrogant! She talks about decolonisation but has yet to decolonise her own mind! She sits on stage, yelling but listen to how she speaks English compared to how I speak English. I speak English like a Xhosa person. It is clear that she attended the same white institutions she talks about dismantling! And she uses the language of white people. There exist no Xhosa word for ‘Fuck’ but here she is, using the white man’s word telling other people to ‘Decolonise’ Yoh!”

The younger woman who was on the panel is a part of the “born free” generation. Born-Frees are those who have grown up since South Africa’s democratic elections of 1994 and therefore did not live during apartheid. The woman who shared her thoughts with us after the talk lived through the final and ending stages of apartheid and through the transition from apartheid to democracy. Based on the era each of the two women were born in, they share very different opinions about what the future of South Africa should be and what steps are needed to get there. Where the younger woman is interested in completely dismantling the current systems and starting anew, whereas the older woman believed it is important to carefully analyze the existing structures, determine what it is that marginalized folks deserve and desire and think up with ways to actively negotiate with the structures that are already in place. Their difference in perspectives, based on my observations and research, reflect a wider intergenerational conflict that exist in South Africa today. At this time, many Born Frees are interest in radical ways of deconstructing the current standing socio-political structures which are, decades later, still reminiscent of apartheid. Many youth, are finding that they have to “fight their parents” in the process since the older generation does not seem to understand the born free’s desires for such resistance/rebellion. Some of the parent generation believe that the youth should be far more grateful that they did not have to live through the horror that was apartheid and they were brought up in a democratic country. To the older generation, it is assumed that since there is no formal policy restricting the youth based on race, they should be able to take advantage of opportunities that were just not available during apartheid. This differing in particular is indicative of the struggles that exists within South Africa when answering the critical question of “What is the Future of the Nation?” [Side Note: Although I will not be sharing people’s names, one of the most interesting aspects about this difference in opinions from two South African, Xhosa women is that they share the same first name]

It is important to keep in mind that the social and political structures and issues that are present in South Africa are far more complex than I am able to explain in a blog post. Although I was able to hear two women’s perspectives and make comparisons to what it is I have learned about the socio-political contexts that exist in South Africa, there exists a whole range of perspectives amongst South Africans from each and every generation. I wanted to write this blog post because I have had the opportunity and extreme privilege to engage in conversations with people from different backgrounds in South Africa about a variety of issues in which the country faces. As the semester goes on, I am interested in learning more about contemporary South Africa as well as people’s interpretations of the country’s past and its hope for the future. Since South Africa is a country where apartheid is not a very distant point in history, it seems as if the social and political structures are constantly being re-negotiated. And for that reason, I am thoroughly excited to learn more.