Children born after apartheid
Tracked the lives of a select group of people who were born in 1990. Now some scientists. DM168 caught up with the author. By
“There are all sorts of variations of language, which communicate a cultural understanding of what’s going on. But what really is strong, which parallels the development of the group, is the incredible sense of freedom they have. Though they might be unemployed, or might not have finished schooling, many of the young people I spoke to had the sense that the world is full of possibilities for them, and in a way that wasn’t the case with their parents.”
This does not apply to everyone. A few days before she was to interview a participant who left school at 15, his mother let the study know he had been sentenced to 40 years in jail for hijacking and murder.
“So, by no means did all of the people in the study turn out well. A lot of people turned out really poorly, and their circumstances are so constrained. One woman wrote and passed her matric but could never afford to go to Pretoria to get her matric certificate; so she was just stuck,” says Richter.
When the study began, it was thought there might be drug problems, but drugs subsequently become a much bigger feature.
“Drugs in the suburban area increased at an incredible rate. Almost every participant spoke of their own experience with drugs, or experiences of their friends with drugs. At the start in 1990, in formerly coloured areas, there were drug problems. Now, everybody is conscious of drugs. Some people speak about the worries of their own children, because now we’ve got a third generation of children born to this cohort,” says Richter.
Surprisingly to Richter, participants were largely disconnected from news and political debate. There was also less participation in formal groups, such as choirs and community groups, than there was with the parents. “There were more informal friendship circles; Twitter friends and Instagram followers. So it’s a different kind of affiliation.”
Reflecting on the findings, during the book launch, Richter told the audience: “Experiences and exposures in early childhood, and intergenerationally, create footpaths to adult health and human capital. However, these effects are not fixed; there is substantial room for individual trajectories to be changed under altered conditions. While South Africa has changed, it has not yet changed enough, or changed in the right direction, for all young people to reach their full human potential, free of the constraints of generations of poverty and adversity.”
While South Africa has changed, it has not yet changed enough, or changed in the right direction, for all young people to reach their full human potential, free of the constraints of generations of poverty and adversity
Birth to forty?
“I have long felt a responsibility to tell the story of Bt30. Mainly because I am the only person among the group that started the study in 1989 who is still actively involved in the project. Also because, for me, many of the staff, and the participants and their families, Bt30 was always more than a study. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to contribute to and be part of Birth to Thirty. It is one of the big achievements of my career,” says Richter.
To get to where it is, the study faced many challenges, not the least of which has been funding. Numerous funders have helped it continue.
“We started with 3,200 children; that’s a lot of children to do physical exams and psychological tests on. We were constantly needing money, space, vehicles and other resources. But we made it through that time; it was a bit of a struggle,” she says, adding that it was only in the ninth year of the study, after surmounting various challenges and securing additional funding, that they could begin to consider extending it to 20 years.
“We have every intention of going to 40 years – I won’t go with them to 40 years, but my colleagues will,” says Richter, who is now 72. She adds: “Longitudinal studies are incredibly expensive and incredibly complicated. Many of them run out of funding just as they get to the point where they see results. It’s in the fifties and the sixties where you start to see the impact of the burden of health. Many people stay relatively healthy until their late thirties and forties. And it’s after that where the mental health issues, relationship stability, work, all of that begins. That’s the life you’ve now got. Lots of studies run out of money before they get to that point. So we’re really hoping to be able to continue.”