Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 23 June 2013

Is the ‘born free’ generation really so free?

Are the ones who were born free able to make the choices that will determine how they are educated, or how they will make a living? Have they been equipped to start their lives and to take the first steps toward adult life in a free and fair society?

They are the ones whose parents fought for freedom and democracy. They are the ones who now carry the hope for a better life in a country where everyone can participate in the benefits of what life has to offer.

Technically they are now participants in a real democracy. They can vote and they can express their opinions. They have freedom of movement unlike many of their parents who grew up with passbooks. They have freedom of access to employment without the job-reservation that excluded their parents from much of the working world. In theory they have freedom from racial discrimination and large-scale transformation is now changing their society.

But how free are they as individuals? They, who have come into their adult life, hobbled by a range of crippling impairments that will be difficult to overcome and that will rob them of much their freedom.

Their first captivity is of their own making; the often unrealistic expectations of a first free generation. They and their parents want the best for them and their ambition and hopes for the future know no bounds. They want to be doctors and lawyers and business entrepreneurs. They want jobs and income stability to build their lives and flourish in this bounteous country. For most of them it’s just not happening.

Contributing factors are the disgraceful state of the education in South Africa, as well as incompetent bureaucrats who cannot get the most basic things done. A recent case history revealed more than a hundred 15 year-old cramped learners in a single, poorly lit classroom in the Eastern Cape. How can any teacher be at all effective?  In 2011, there were 94,000 schoolgirls who became pregnant, giving them access to registration for government child grants. The tales of teen-age desperation in the schooling system are an overwhelming indictment.

There is no need either to dwell on the “time bomb” of youth unemployment now estimated to be more than 50% for this millennial generation. The single most damaging loss of freedom is the freedom that comes with financial independence. How many of them will achieve it? How many of them will have the security and benefit of solid working lives? The economic realities of unemployment are obvious and well known. It is the psychological and self-esteem consequences that are even more serious and will rob much of the born-free generation of its hope for the future.

Living in a world where one’s self-concept is derived so much from what one does for a living, not having a job or a clear career path means missing a critical component of selfhood. The unemployed person is marginalised from the mainstream of society, even township society. The sense of being excluded attacks self-confidence and destroys hope for the future.

Now with their eyes firmly on 2014, political parties are all vying to capture the attention of the expanding ‘born free’ generation. Youth wage subsidies and tax breaks for employers who give jobs to young people are just some of the measures. They want to mine this new seam of voters who will return them to power.

This courting of the youth tends to happen before every election. But if they think that promises and political ideology are going to do it they are mistaken. People around the age of 18 are much more concerned with their education, having an income and getting their lives started. Yes, they are politically aware and we know that it is the youth who often are the harbingers of social change, but as members of the millennial generation, they too are first concerned with themselves. They need to have what is required to get onto the first rung of adult life.

During the Apartheid years, families were torn apart by the migrant labour systems. With fathers and often mothers absent working in the cities, childrearing was left to the grandmothers in the rural areas. In the post-Apartheid years it was the Aids epidemic and poverty that resulted in much the same situation: dysfunctional family units with little of the mentoring and role modelling needed to build the confidence and self-esteem of a growing child.

The born-frees have been the victims of this and are now arriving in adult society without much of the coping equipment they will need to survive in it. It will not dampen their expectations or their wish for success and achievement. They are the ones who want to have the branded consumer goods and to participate in the social media driven culture. It is when these hopes are frustrated that the real desperation sets in. All that is left to do is to protest.

How sad that the freedom offered by democracy does not seem to be working for them or for many of the other members of the country’s youth. In 2011 it is estimated that 75% of people aged 20 to 29 did not vote in the local government elections. The systems and structures of organised democratic society hold little appeal and have not been sufficiently instilled. They have become a generation that is more likely to take to violent street protest than to vote and participate in the democratic process to achieve change.

It does not help to say that they will not be alone in this. What is happening now in several countries, notably Brazil and Turkey, reflects the same disenchantment with established democratic processes in favour of street protest.

Agreed, the freedom of ideas and the freedom to protest and to express dissatisfaction are major assets of the born frees. In this sense they are the free generation. Unfortunately those freedoms do not compensate for the imprisonment of poverty caused by poor education, dysfunctional family life and unemployment. DM

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