Born free?

South Africa, thirty-years after 1994.

Jubilant crowds listening to the speech of President Nelson Mandela May 10, 1994. Image credit Sattleberger for UN Photo via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

Ernest Mancoba was born east of Johannesburg in August 1904. He was the eldest son of a miner. He trained as a teacher and taught isiZulu to schoolchildren until he was introduced to woodcarving. He was taken: he developed a tendency to leave in the middle of a conversation for his chisel and a piece of wood when inspiration struck. He completed his first works, and his acclaim as a sculptor grew. In 1938—10 years before the National Party came to power and formal apartheid began—he set sail from Cape Town aboard the RMS Balmoral Castle to take up formal art studies in Paris. He expected to return two years later, but this was not to be. The Second World War broke out, the Germans occupied France, and in 1940 Mancoba was interned. In time, he was freed. Mancoba became a French citizen and did not return to South Africa until 56 years later, in 1994, the year the apartheid regime fell.  He died in France in 2002. This sculpture, completed in 1934, was one of his last before leaving South Africa. He called it “Future Africa (Africa to Be)”. 

I don’t remember much of my ninth year. I do know that a month into it the South African Police Services shot dead 34 striking mine workers in what we now call the Marikana Massacre. I know that it was around then that an English teacher, rather prematurely, handed me a copy of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I’m quite certain I didn’t read past the epigraph from Yeats’ The Second Coming, not knowing what to make of the falcon and the falconer. I know that if I had to trace back the moment in time at which, in my own life, the ceremony of innocence was drowned, my guess would be that ninth year. It must have been around then that I first came face to face, in a textbook, with the two boys in Mancoba’s sculpture, and a disquiet not unlike theirs came over me.

What did Mancoba see when he returned to his native land? What resemblance did the South Africa he found bear to the one that he thought was to be? Despite his half a century away, Mancoba has in common with South Africans, exiled and rooted, a life that necessarily proceeds through that fateful year—1994. 

On January 28 that year, on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand, a young man—bearded, spectacled, industrious—stepped out of his maroon Honda Ballade and watched the documents fly out of his spiral-bound file. “I’ll help you,” a young woman passing by said to him, already bending to retrieve the pieces of paper. It was, in fact, the man’s birthday, and “I guess you’re my present,” he said to her as their eyes met. Two years later, they married; one year after, they had a daughter, and six years after that, a son—me.

April 27, the day we call Freedom Day, marks 30 years since South Africa’s first democratic election. “We’re as old as democracy,” my parents joked when we called a couple of days ago from Cambridge, Massachusetts. In both senses of the word, April 27 1994 was a date to remember for them—just three months into their love affair, they voted together in Johannesburg. “It was a carnival,” my father recounted as we spoke. “Excitement like you’ve never seen before.” 

Did Mancoba have the wrong idea, then? Was he wrong to forecast the sorrow, the cloud that hangs over his two boys? Or was he casting the longer view, further into future Africa than he himself would live to see? Did he have his chisel pointed to somewhere near the present? 

In the May 9, 1994 issue of The New Yorker, a comment ran under the title: “Vote of Confidence.” “Last week, of course, the impossible happened,” it read—and perhaps there isn’t a more fitting formulation of the South African story: “of course, the impossible.” Then as now. The South African story—or tragedy—has an unmistakably Greek character to it: the perverted prescience of arriving at truths evident from the beginning of the quest; the complete dissolution of those two separate states: saint and sinner. Readers of that New Yorker issue might have kept up with South African politics just as with, say, successive seasons of Succession, except they might have favored the latter, with the complaint that the South African narrative strayed too far from realism. The images of dire poverty, of stark inequality, look too exaggerated, they may say; the characters are too caricatured, falling too easily into good and bad, villain and helpless victim. The plot—corruption scandal after corruption scandal, electricity crisis after water crisis—looks too implausible. Besides, it would appear that the protagonists they tuned in to follow the fates of (the South African people) have been mysteriously left off stage. Or, perhaps, at some point much before all of that, they would have changed the channel, quit with the whole thing. Too depressing. 

Just over 30 days from today, South Africans will cast their votes in a national election for the sixth time. I remember the most recent two—I was 15 and 10—and I remember the gloom that seemed to preside over them both. It is hard not to notice a decidedly different feel this time, a change in the air; even from afar. As the tulips bloom out of a miserable Massacheusstes winter, I feel the warm glow of something like resolve. “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

This May, I will have come after age: I will vote for the first time. I do, after all, belong to that generation christened as “born frees”—South Africans born after 1994, who know only freedom and not what it cost. As I re-read that New Yorker comment, one line rang like a phone call bringing bad news. “There is little real fear that the election will be a prelude to one-party rule.” For 30 years, it has seemed that South Africans could no sooner conceive of a South Africa divorced from unilateral ANC rule than they could forget 1994. If the impossible is to happen this time around, it’s in the projected likelihood that the ANC will lose its parliamentary majority come May. 

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

If this is South Africa’s Second Coming, the Messiah is a no-show. Perhaps it is because his legacy has been undone by proliferating acts of sacrilege. In 2015, a student group at the University of Cape Town under the unsuspicious name “The Collective” organized an open debate; the motion: “Did Mandela sell out?” The verdict was unanimous: yes, Mandela sold out the masses. Out of that meeting came #RhodesMustFall, eventually #FeesMustFall, and many other movements now known collectively as the #MustFall movements. Everything Must Fall; with some distance from that moment, the question is: what must rise?

South Africa’s situation is not the morbid Manichaeism that the Americans are faced with as November looms and two demagogues each seem intent on proving themselves the greater of two evils. South Africa’s terrain is densely populated, even contested; small parties with big plans abound. Yet, none seems wholly satisfactory for the median voter. To the old, the white liberal Democratic Alliance is too coded in the wrong kind of nostalgia; to the young, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the recently revived uMkhonto weSizwe Party are radical but ultimately soiled. The absence of a credible, emancipatory alternative to the ANC has come to signal the black, impoverished majority’s entrapment within the sordid status quo. For a long time, there has seemed to be no way out, no kingdom come; those children called born frees—if they happen to be born black and poor—seem, in every aspect, to resemble Mancoba’s two boys.

Even to invest this election with heightened meaning seems akin to kneeling before a false god. If Mancoba has been proven prescient in foreseeing today’s South Africa, the ANC has too. As far back as 1969, at a meeting in Morogoro, Tanzania, the ANC put together a document detailing their “Strategy and Tactics.” In it, they wrote:

In our country—more than in any other part of the oppressed world—it is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning without a return of the wealth of the land to the people as a whole. It is therefore a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the root of racial supremacy and does not represent even the shadow of liberation.

If Americans have, through sheer overuse, emptied the word
of meaning, then South Africans have done the same with “freedom”or, liberation, emancipation, anything under the same wrinkled banner. It seems to me that the task—long overdue—before the Republic of South Africa is to give that word, freedom, a concrete significance. May 29, 2024, I like to think, is not an event for the fulfillment of that task, but a beginning, a new beginning, dare I say. 

Or perhaps there is such a thing as “the youth,” maybe I have a young person’s point of view. In July this year, I’ll turn 21. In between our reminiscences, it occurred to my mother that in 1994 she too was voting for the first time, and she too was turning 21. “I made the promise that I will always vote,” she told me. “There were people older than me, people who fought for us, people who had died, who never voted.” She trailed off. Unprompted by me, she continued, “The sad thing is with everything how it is now, for the first time in my life I feel like not going to vote.” And her voice plummeted a register. “We don’t have an alternative—for us, it’s voted ANC or stay home. But if I stay home, I’ll be thinking of all the people before me who didn’t get to vote.” She seemed weighed down—even through the phone. I thought, for a long while, of that New Yorker comment: “Vote of Confidence.” My mom, though, has a tendency to fill silences. “I’ll decide on the day, the verdict is still out.”

She will vote, I know it—I get my sense of duty from her. If there is a trans-generational endeavor to find out what freedom means, it springs from a collective understanding among South Africans of what freedom is worth. For my parents, that understanding was lived; for me, it was inherited. If we are to liken our young democracy to a child, side-by-side with Mancoba’s solemn boys, another image comes to mind: that of the rascal. Throughout my upbringing, I hardly remember April 27 passing without the question being asked of whether we should, truly, be celebrating Freedom Day; what at all we had to celebrate, how far we had really come since ‘94. 

It is not for nothing that South Africa has been dubbed the “protest capital of the world.” On these and other occasions, South Africans old and young come to sound like the little rascal springing forward from the backseat, disrupting sleep, drowning out the stereo, crying incessantly: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” 

It’s hard to make out the horizon. The sun filters in but there are rain clouds gathering too. A month along the way is a stop, a chance to re-orient, renew. What I hope—what I suspect—is that South Africans have not given up their stubborn belief in the certainty of arrival and their irrational hope that it is imminent.

When Mancoba called his sculpture “Africa to be, I don’t know how long he thought fruition would take. Some break with that future he carved out seems to be occurring, though; a new future for the South Africans is waiting to be made. My sense is that it will take as creative an act.  

For now, this much is true: on May 22, sometime around five in the evening, I’ll find myself making some hard choices about what to squeeze into my suitcases and what to discard. I’ll lug the two suitcases and two carry-ons and take up a space thrice the size of me on the Red Line. I’ll lift my head in Boston Logan and pace towards my gate. I’ll board the flight, take my window seat, and stare out into the night sky. I’ll get off in London, rot in Heathrow for more hours than anyone should have to bear. I’ll get on the next flight, destination JNB. Eventually, my neighbor will sit down next to me. I’ll look over and say hello; eventually ask them, “what takes you to South Africa?” It will be, as always, one of a set number of things: safari, surfing, Table Mountain, conference. “And how about you?” they’ll ask. And this part will be different. I’ll say, “I am going to vote.”

Further Reading