Born free, but still in chains

Sunday Times - - BOOKS - • Maluleke is pro­fes­sor of African cul­ture and spir­i­tu­al­ity at the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria. He writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity.

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

@ProfTinyik­o

Pic­ture: THE TIMES

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)

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