By Keith Somerville

President Jacob Zuma has reacted angrily to the use of the term ‘born frees’ for the generation of young South Africans who will get their first chance to vote in next year’s elections. Speaking at a voter registration drive in Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria, on 8th November, he said that the term was propaganda and makes young people out to be idiots. Quite how he came to the conclusion that ‘born free’ was being equated with idiocy is not clear, but his nervousness about this generation is. His irritated retort is not just redolent of the president’s and the ANC’s sensitivity to real or implied criticism; it is also a measure of the concern within the ANC about the voting intentions of the million plus new voters who may appear on the electoral roll.

‘Born free’ refers to the generation born in 1994 or afterwards. Just over 600,000 South Africans were born in the year that the ANC was voted into office, with a similar number in the following two years. Not all will register to vote, but there could be one-and-a-half million new voters casting their ballots for the first time. This is over 5% of the electorate. The ANC is concerned that many of this generation will not register to vote, but is perhaps even more worried that those who do might not vote for the ANC as a matter of course, not being of the struggle or lost generations of the 1980s and the early 1990s or what could be called the grand apartheid generation that preceded it. For those generations, the ANC is the party of struggle and liberation – even if its actual physical role in the struggle was limited and it had to integrate and subordinate the UDF, COSATU and other domestic “struggle” organizations once it was unbanned in 1990.
Zuma is unbelievably sensitive to criticism and bad media coverage and the ANC is constantly on the offensive against perceived criticism or slights – just witness the vituperation from the ANC’s spokespersons over art students who recently produced T-shirts mocking Zuma. The term born free has been in use for some time but the ANC has become increasingly sensitive to its use, hence Zuma’s tirade and the attempt to portray it as an insult to youths. There’s a simple reason for his anger. The term implies not stupidity but a generation that didn’t know apartheid, for whom it will be harder for the ANC to portray itself as the natural party of government because of its liberation movement status and its now inflated accounts of its dominant role of fighting for black South Africans during the struggle. The identification of a new generation that may not automatically feel respect for ANC leaders, awareness of the sacrifices of those who died or went to prison, or a sense of owing something to the ANC, is worrying to the Party. There is ample recent literature, such as Roger Southall’s book, Liberation Movements in power: Party and State in Southern Africa, which addresses the mentality of “struggle” organizations and their assumption of a right to rule derived from their role in fighting minority rule, rather than realisation that they have to earn that right through delivering good governance and better living standards.

The ANC is under pressure because it is not delivering jobs to young South Africans, is riven by factions and pressed, though not yet too strongly, by new movements and parties. One of those new movements, the Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema, may prove to be a vocal, rather dangerous and potentially damaging flash in the pan, but at the moment it scares some in the ANC who fear it could attract young voters who did not take part in the struggle or experience apartheid. They fear that unemployed or disadvantaged young South Africans will warm to the extravagant promises and violent criticisms made by Malema, as the radical, bling prophet of a better life for the unemployed and marginalized young. Zuma addressed this, without mentioning the EFF by name, when he told his Atteridgeville audience that, “There are a lot of people who make empty promises. You need to know there is an organisation that fought for freedom.” Just how much the freedom selling point will work with a generation born free but condemned to poor service delivery, rampant corruption in government, and the prospects of 50% unemployment for the foreseeable future, remains to be seen.
The generational change factor has been important across Africa over the last 25 years, as generations which did not know colonialism but grew up with authoritarian governments, corruption and declining living standards, showed that they had scant respect for the old parties and leaders who even in the 1980s and 1990s tried to bolster their appeal by harping on the liberator theme. In an interview in Lusaka in 1991, the then President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia was honest enough to admit to me that he was having to agree to multiparty politics and to campaign hard for the youth vote as a generation had grown up which had not known colonialism and had no great respect for those who struggled for independence. He admitted that it would be hard to harness their support. And he was right. They voted him out of office later in the year.
The ANC may not be about to lose office, but it wants the lion’s share of the born free vote as it seeks, as Zuma has said repeatedly, 75% of the vote and so the ability to totally dominate parliament and be free to amend the constitution and rule without let or hindrance. This ambition could be hard toachieve. The EFF is hardly likely to become a challenger for power but it could take away votes. Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang party might take some of the votes of educated, middle class voters (old and young) sick of the corrupt and increasingly violent and intolerant image of the ANC, and the DA could increase its share of the vote while retaining power in the Western Cape, to the ANC’s immense irritation. This could all eat away at the size of the ANC majority, though without threatening its hold on power. But a lessening of support now, especially if COSATU remains split and is not able to play the same mobilization role among voters it did in previous elections, could demonstrate that the ANC is not THE party of government purely because of the struggle. The death of Nelson Mandela could also have an effect in the future – when he dies a milestone will have been passed and people who might have voted for the ANC out of loyalty to and respect for him could drop away. Next year’s vote may not topple the ANC, but it could be the start of a process of electoral decline to match its evident moral decline.
And, as the older generations die off, the ANC must capture the new voters – first of all ensuring they register and then ensuring they vote for the ANC. In the 2011 municipal elections, 23.65 million South Africans were registered to vote; five million were eligible but did not register. Only 57.64% actually voted. In 2009, 77.3% voted in the national elections – down by 8% from the previous national vote. Many young people, as happens across the world, are apathetic about elections and formal politics as they see their problems of unemployment and poor prospects not seriously addressed by the elected government. South African political commentator Justice Malala has said that, “One of the biggest challenges for our maturing democracy is apathy”. The ANC is struggling to overcome apathy in the born free generation and is worried that apathy could turn to hostility, encouraged by the rabble-rousing speeches of Malema, seeking to harness youth frustrations and anger.

The former UDF and ANC activist, who played his role in the struggle and as President Thabo Mbeki’s right-hand man in government, Frank Chikane, has said that dealing with the born frees is the ANC’s biggest challenge, pointing to the 51% unemployment rate among 15 to 24 year olds. He warned recently that, “If the ANC doesn’t change, it is going to lose that generation. And if it loses that generation, it will lose an election — you can be sure about that.” That is why Zuma is fulminating about the term born free generation – the generation that could use its freedom to reject him and his increasingly out of touch movement.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies; teaches in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent; and edits the Africa – News and Analysis website (

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