Born free, but still in chains
OVER the past 18 months, a dozen or so books have appeared that assess, celebrate and at times lament aspects of South Africa’s first two decades of democracy. Many have come in the guise of political biographies or memoirs. Written by knowledgeable, respected and experienced struggle veterans, each adds an important strand to our collective narrative of the journey to freedom.
This book stands out because it’s not by a veteran. It is written by a 22-year-old woman, Malaika Lesego Samora Mahlatsi, who goes by the name Malaika wa Azania. Memoirs of a Born Free, styled as a letter to the ANC, provides a profound commentary on South Africa’s 20 years of democracy.
The author’s main advantage is her age. She is young enough not to have been affected by apartheid-era thinking and its complexes. She is not old enough to be easily impressed by such post-democracy developments as tap water and electricity in the villages and shanty-towns.
Born 20 months after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, Wa Azania writes from inside the overcrowded shack which she called home. She tells of a fateful afternoon on her way home from school when she witnessed the necklace killing of a young man. She was 15.
She also offers a vivid picture of her mother’s worship of, and work for, the ANC, and tells how her mother left the party in disappointment. Her life depended on the treacherously thin thread of her mother’s unpredictable job prospects. Every time her mother lost a job, Wa Azania’s prospects threatened to evaporate.
At one stage, she ended up on a psychologist’s couch and her mother was admitted to a psychiatric ward. The author talks of how Model C schools tried to erase her black and political identities. She speaks of how, as a young black woman, she struggled to get into university.
Let us not dismiss Wa Azania’s perspective merely because she offers no familiar bromides of gratitude for freedom. The academics and ideologues among us must not reject her work on account of “lack of theory”. She offers a disturbing memoir of what democratic South Africa has wrought in her young life, planted in her tender heart and engraved in her hardening soul.
Why are we surprised when we note that the universities which Wa Azania’s mother cannot afford, and in which she does not feel welcome, have fewer than one in 10 black professors? Why are we surprised that the one thing that all South African universities — including the so-called big five — have in common is their failure to stop black students from dropping out in large numbers?
Wa Azania’s story does not provide full and final answers, but it contains clues. What young South Africans need within the next five years is a plan that will ensure they do not repeat her brutal experience. They will not wait another 15 or 30. — Tinyiko Maluleke
FADED DREAM: Celebrations greeted the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990
Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation ★★★★ ★ Malaika wa Azania, with a foreword by Simphiwe Dana (Jacana, R175)