Apartheid exploded in the 1980s at the height of suffering and violence. In 1994, the country decided on a different path. Ours is the saga of a nation exhausted of itself, of the terrifying atrocities it was capable of and how unrecognisable it had become. This was no longer the promised land of any racial group.
Whether locked up in exile, on Robben Island or in the townships, black people were not at home in their land. And this was no longer the supposed promised land for the Dutch refugees who had fled religious persecution from Europe either.
Years of tremendous human rights violations had led South Africa into a war zone of gratuitous targeted violence, leaving a traumatised nation. In attempts to build an Afrikaner Utopia, a hideous institutional machinery was built and powered through the systemic exclusion, landlessness and exploitation of the black population. They even had a secret society controlling things from the shadows – the Broederbond.
And then, one day, it all ended.
A man was released from prison and came in to save the day. He spoke to both sides to lower their guns, spoke Afrikaans to people he refused to hate and united a country through love and forgiveness. He encouraged them to watch rugby together.
A lawyer and scholar, he made friends with his enemies to show the country, and indeed the world, how to be human.
He had spent a large number of years in prison, so surely if anyone had to be angry, it had to be him. How did he do it?
The nation was captivated by the gentle, enigmatic personality of Nelson Mandela.
He told a country that it could reconcile with itself. And that it could heal and move on. He inspired a generation to believe in the possibilities of this country, that they can not only build, but eventually thrive, returning once more to the Valhalla of civilised nations.
Then came the fast age of BEE, entrepreneurship and black executives. Black people who were excluded from commerce were finally ready to make money. It was the time of hustling and tenders, patronage and corruption. I remember a time when the TV show The Apprentice was popular. It was the ethos of the time.
Men and women went out to work every day with pride and self-belief. Finally, to be black was beautiful and black power had conquered. South Africa was transforming.
With racism no longer in sight, the next hurdle the country had to face was growing the economy and getting people to work. All hands had to be on deck, every man, woman and child was expected to play their part, to get an education and serve their country.
When, at the age of eight in 2000, I heard that the Y2K virus would infect computers and end humanity or that God’s calendar was up, I was was disappointed that I would never be part of it all. The dreams from my mother of a new South Africa were shattered. I would never experience these new possibilities she spoke about. She held on to this idea with a passion whose source, origin and history I could never understand.
At that young age, to me, the world seemed as old as it was. There was nothing new about it. When you are born in a village in Malamulele in Limpopo, time seems to not move at all.
Millennials grew up as witnesses to the constant disappointments of their parents at the hands of a false rainbow dream. A dream they are bound to reject as their own. To be woke is not only about recognising racial and gender inequalities but more so to be aware of the system of oppression that reinvents itself while bearing the same exploitative effects.
South Africa has built its entire post-1994 identity as a country of heroes, of women and men who reached a higher level of consciousness: personal sacrifice. These are the selfless fathers and mothers of our nation, who were jailed, exiled and persecuted. This is a tough burden to carry for any generation of young people who seek to supplant their parents.
To be born in the ‘90s in South Africa is to be born with a desire to be one of the celebrated Struggle icons in a country that insists that the Struggle is over.
The student protests of 2016 were sparks of a youth that sought to complete the mission of their predecessors in 1976. The Soweto Youth uprising came with a new generation of young black South Africans who grew up under the shadow of the legends of the 1960s. These were the years of Robert Sobukwe, the Treason Trial, Malcolm X and Nkwame Nkrumah.
Students would read the black consciousness writings of Steve Biko, a famed apprentice of Robert Sobukwe, the first president of the PAC. These are the same writings read by university students today in the Fallist movement.
The #FeesMustFall generation also emerged in the shadow of another group of legends, those of the ‘90s. We were told to admire these Struggle stalwarts and learn from their courage. How then does the country not realise that to protest is part of the metamorphosis of our self-actualisation? Our youthful outbursts are but the actions of a pupa twisting and jerking; wrestling inside its cocoon to escape.
When Millennials take over the world, they will be shocked at how slow it is to implement any kind of change. The #FeesMustFall movement as well as the uprisings had the youthful zest of a fire from twigs rather than the hard bark of a tree. In an age of social media celebrity status and fame, Millennials have never had to learn the long hard wait of work.
Adults have realised that the tenacity of youth often gets slowed down by the disappointments of the slow wheels of justice, and a historical burden of inequality and selfishness. Life is complex and filled with a myriad unexpected turns of events.
It would be naive to think that corrupt individuals are manufactured in a dark, evil castle far away. They are people we know and grow up with. It all starts by being short on rent for one month and an offer of a brown envelope under the table, accepted in desperation. Then the taste grows and becomes habit. Even dictators once held revolutionary ideals strongly before they forsook them along the way to power.
What will be the fate of Millennials when we take over the world? What will power’s effects be on us? It is likely that 20 years from now South Africa will largely be a country of people born after 1994. How will a new generation who never experienced apartheid perceive their own country? How will we deal with the scars of the past; a legacy of racial oppression and of a decaying liberation party? In which direction will we turn this country in its quest to find peace?
We have an opportunity to learn from the past – how every new generation wrestles with the unfinished work of the older, to do better and finish the long road to justice. We too will be supplanted by a younger generation who will judge us and determine how far we have carried the baton. Will we pass the litmus test of an authentic revolution?
The land debate in this country has offered an opportunity to deal with lingering issues. This national political consciousness affords us a chance to become the rainbow nation our parents’ generation dreamed of. True justice in this country can only be achieved by eliminating inequality through the dignity that comes from owning land.
There’s a load of stumbling blocks – the market, food security, the IMF, neo-colonialism – those things that might collapse or have a pushback to the economy if improperly handled. These are challenges that Millennials will have to face in the wake of a growing demand for land when we take over South Africa.
Fortunately, we have a great lineage of Struggle icons whose wisdom we can still turn to. #FeesMustFall aimed to achieve something beyond free education – the complete decolonising of the education system. Though we may be disappointed in the unfinished work of the ‘90s, our own protests have taught us that often in life you may start out with the most noble intentions but find yourself ending up elsewhere – far from the ideal hoped for. DM