Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a cell. Once he became president, he often addressed his younger countrymen, whose South Africa he hoped would bear little resemblance to the one he grew up in.
“This generation of youth stands at the borderline between the past of oppression and repression, and the future of prosperity, peace and harmony,” he told a gathering of students in 1995. “You are the future.”
Photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien spent more than 10 years documenting the lives of South Africa’s “born frees” — those who were born after Mandela’s ascent to power and too young to experience white rule firsthand.
This year marks a quarter of a century since the end of apartheid. Njiokiktjien’s subjects are all in their 20s, children of the proudly diverse “rainbow nation,” as South Africa is sometimes nicknamed these days.
In their South Africa, they can have friends and lovers of other races, but the legacy of apartheid surrounds them. White South Africans still own the vast majority of land and control most of the country’s wealth. From above, South Africa’s cities are patchworks of dense, mostly black neighborhoods of shacks — a direct inheritance of the segregated housing of the apartheid era — and tony gated communities fenced off with barbed wire.
South Africans voted in national elections on Wednesday, and race relations remain at the forefront of politics.
Njiokiktjien’s photos document a generation of “born frees” as they navigate early adulthood in a present that is a dim version of Mandela’s imagined one. In it, youth unemployment is more than 50 percent, and most young people do not participate in the elections.
“Born free from what?” asked one, named Candice Mama, 28. “I think it’s one of those phrases that are catchy for the media. You are still living with the repercussions of the oppressive system that was there before you.”
27 | fashion designer | Johannesburg
“The whole time I was thinking, ‘I wish she was here.’ ”
As she stood onstage, accepting her award in the South African Fashion Week’s New Talent Search, Cindy Mfabe, 27, was thinking of her mother, who died of a brain tumor in 2017. It was her mother who had bought Mfabe her first sewing machine when she was 13. It was her mother who supported her when others told her that fashion designer is a “rich person’s career.”
Mfabe lives with her father, sister and brother in Alexandra, a large township on the edge of Johannesburg. She compares the “workforce” living there to miners, digging up gold they don’t get to keep.
“We, the people from Alexandra township, wake up every morning, work hard for a small pay while all the big corporations in Sandton make tons of money,” she said, referring to a nearby predominantly white enclave. “At 6 p.m. people go back to Alexandra township, back into the informal settlements.”
And when some say Sandton also has rich black people now, offering a sign of progress, she counters that these make up a very small minority of the black population. “Maybe 10 percent. But what about the other 90 percent?”
Mfabe said she was lucky to have supportive parents who went out of their way for her to study fashion, a choice many families would be reluctant to support. That’s what she was thinking about when she won the contest. “My mom told me I could do this,” she said. “I didn’t believe it, and then it happened.”
Kevin du Plessis
28 | graphic designer | Cape Town
“Her first reaction was to blame my biological father for not being there in the forming years of our lives, thinking, like, that’s what turned me gay,” said Kevin du Plessis, 28, as he recounts his mother’s initial response when he told her about his first boyfriend.
That lack of understanding is why du Plessis believes a magazine like Gay Pages, where he works as a graphic designer, is necessary in South Africa. The magazine was founded in 1994, the same year the new interim democratic constitution was adopted. Before then, being gay was illegal, though the authorities did not pay much attention to the gay community because they were focused on the “swart gevaar,” said du Plessis, using the apartheid-era Afrikaans phrase that means “the black danger.”
“I grew up being told not to make friends with our maid,” he said. Du Plessis frequently clashed with his family. But he doesn’t blame his parents for their views. “They grew up with what they knew.”
24 | student | Durban
“Everything is so close-knit and close by, and everyone just gets along with everybody.” Darshana Govindram, 24, paints a peaceful picture of life in Chatsworth, a suburb of Durban that used to be segregated during apartheid.
Govindram’s social and family lives have always centered on the area’s Hare Krishna temple. Mandela once called the temple an example of the rainbow nation. “He said he hasn’t seen so many races under one roof,” Govindram said. That was after her parents and grandparents suffered under white rule.
“There were certain places that they, as Indians, were not allowed to go,” she said. “They weren’t allowed to go, like, to the beach, to the malls and to the movies. But Nelson Mandela fought for freedom, and in 1994 we became an apartheid-free country.”
Today, Govindram’s group of friends is a mixture of all colors and classes. “At the temple, we are all just one big family,” she said.
21 | student | Centane
"Our elders were with us, teaching us how to think like a man," said Mzimkulu Ntakana, 21, after coming back from a month of seclusion in the mountains, where he was circumcised and went through the initiation period that turns boys into men. The ritual is an important part of the lives of Xhosa men, the second largest ethnic group in South Africa.
"They were teaching us not to be violent, not to abuse power," he said. "They're teaching us respect, love."
Now people are celebrating his return, drinking copious amounts of brandy, vodka and whiskey. It reminded Ntakana of December, when people come back to the mainly rural Eastern Cape province to spend the festive season with their family. Jobs are few there, so most people of working age leave to find work in cities like Cape Town.
Ntakana is studying economics and hopes he can one day become an accountant, though he knows a degree is no a guarantee for a job in South Africa. For now, though, he's wearing his new suit to signify he is newly a man.
21 | Durban
“I wanted to get that fresh air,” Nonjabulo Ndzanibe said. That’s why the 21-year-old woman ran away to Durban from her unhappy childhood home. Having grown up with a distant father and a mother whom she didn’t feel loved by, it seemed like a welcome escape when a friend invited her to come stay in Durban.
She didn’t know then that her friend’s sister, with whom they were staying, was a prostitute — and that she expected them to start bringing in money, as well. “If we didn’t come back with money, she would slap us,” Ndzanibe said.
Alone in an unknown city, afraid to go back home, she started roaming the streets. Sometimes she made a bit of money helping the police clean up car crash sites. Other times, she would have sex with men for money, so that she could pay for a bed in a night shelter.
One day, as she was walking along the beach, someone introduced her to a surfing club for homeless children, SurfNotStreets. The club offered her a place to stay. More important, she found friends who supported her, like Cikie, an employee at the organization who opened her home to Ndzanibe.
“Last week I told Cikie: ‘Mummy, I need shoes,’ because I only had slippers,” she said. “But she told me to just wear what I have and make it work. So I went out with those flops, and I made it work, because I was proud of myself.”
Wilmarie Deetlefs and Zakithi Buthelezi
24 and 27 | graphic designer and online analyst | Johannesburg
Zakithi Buthelezi, 27, quickly noticed that people often treat him differently once they find out he has a white girlfriend. Friendlier, more interested. It gets him respect, he said. For Wilmarie Deetlefs, 24, it’s often the other way around. “Go get yourself a man of your own color,” she said a taxi driver once snarled at her.
Such remarks frustrate the couple.
“They are basically saying this is something out of the ordinary. But it’s not,” said Deetlefs. “It’s just two people connected,” Buthelezi added.
But those comments do not amount to prosecution, which is what they could have faced under apartheid laws that prohibited interracial relationships. “I would have totally sneaked around for you, though,” Deetlefs said to Buthelezi, laughing.
Five months into their relationship — “a Tinder success story” — Deetlefs hadn’t yet told her parents about it.
“The previous relationship I had with someone who wasn’t white — my dad took it so weirdly, strangely personal,” she said, blaming his reaction on the conservative mentality in the small rural town where she grew up and where her parents still live.
“We’re the generation that’s going to completely move away from how South Africa lived,” Buthelezi said. “For people in the older generation, everything is still so racialist, and apartheid is still thrown into debates. That is over, guys. It’s just time to move on.”