Last year, I began teaching a group of black South Africans at a Cape Town media project. Live Magazine is designed to give opportunities to young people from townships trying to find a route into South Africa’s creative industries. As one of the professional mentors, I help the students make videos and tell stories from their communities about music, youth opinion and career advice.
All my class are aspiring filmmakers, writers, photographers and designers. For them it is an amazing opportunity to gain work experience. For me, it has been a wonderful chance to discuss the hopes, dreams and frustrations of contemporary South Africa with young black people in a city that, 22 years after the end of apartheid, remains highly racially segregated.
The young interns all come from different areas of Cape Town, but share one crucial characteristic — they are trying to make their way in a society where youth unemployment is 45 percent and the economic situation shows no sign of improving.
My students quickly started teaching me Xhosa and their complicated local youth handshake.
I still get that wrong.
One young man, Manez, even joked one day that they would make me African, but for now at least I did resemble the 61-year-old Helen Zille (the white leader of the Democratic Alliance opposition party) in my glasses. A bit cheeky really, since I’m in my mid-40s.
Above all, from my point of view, the class was giving me a fascinating insight into the “born free” generation — those black people born after the tumultuous struggle by their parents against apartheid had been won.
I moved from London to Cape Town in 2006 with my husband and our two young children. Twenty-five years ago, in the 1980s, I was a politically active student and marched against apartheid in those huge demonstrations which used to end up in Trafalgar Square. Later, as a 23-year-old in 1990, I partied hard with my friends when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
In those heady days, the exiled heroes of the African National Congress (ANC), the political force that led the anti-apartheid battle, returned to South Africa and most of the world believed that the change in people’s lives would be enormous.
Almost a quarter of a century later, the ANC is viewed very differently by my students. They all heard the stories of the battles fought by their parents’ generation “back in the day.”
Many of them still feel a loyalty to the party that liberated them and cannot see a credible alternative to the ANC, which has enjoyed unbroken political power since 1994, but they are growing increasingly cynical and frustrated with the pace of real transformation in their prospects.
My students told me that they did not trust South African President Jacob Zuma — they are turned off by the scandals involving his financial affairs and they disapprove of his decision to embrace Zulu polygamy and take four wives.
A sizeable number prefer Julius Malema, the firebrand ANC youth leader, who was expelled from the party after controversial remarks about the ANC’s leadership. He might be a rabble-rouser, but at least he is challenging the ideas of a complacent ruling party.
The Lonmin shootings in which 34 mineworkers were killed when police opened fire on demonstrators have shocked everyone in South Africa, not least in my class. To them the scenes were reminiscent of the apartheid era that they had learned about from their parents and in history books at school.