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How South Africa's 'Born frees' — those born after apartheid — could impact its election


It's a record-breaking year for elections around the world. Dozens of countries are set to hold polls that many say will test democracy. For South Africans who are set to vote in national elections on May 29, that democracy was especially hard-won. But three decades since the end of apartheid and white minority rule, the same party is in power. Many are disillusioned. Kate Bartlett spoke to so-called born frees and people who never knew apartheid and whose votes have the potential to shake things up if they turn out.

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: The images were broadcast around the world - people patiently waiting in long lines for hours as millions of South Africans turned out to cast their votes for the first time on April 27, 1994.


UNIDENTIFIED VOTER #1: I'm so happy. I'm so proud when I vote.

UNIDENTIFIED VOTER #2: Because it's a new South Africa. We got a new freedom.


BARTLETT: These were some of the voices of the voters NPR spoke to on that momentous day.


UNIDENTIFIED VOTER #4: We've been waiting for the day. We'd never been given a chance to vote, but we're very happy to vote in my life, for choosing the government which i wanted.

UNIDENTIFIED VOTER #5: It is my first time to vote. I think it's going to be all right for myself.

BARTLETT: Nelson Mandela became the country's first Black president, and his party the, African National Congress, ANC, won in a landslide.


NELSON MANDELA: We are both humbled and elevated by the honor and privilege, that you, the people of South Africa, have bestowed on us as the first president of a united, democratic, nonracial and nonsexist South Africa, to lead our country out of the valley of darkness.

BARTLETT: Fast-forward 30 years, and on this 27 April, now a public holiday known as Freedom Day, things look rather different.

TESS DOOMS: If you're 30 years old in South Africa today, this year, you've only known democracy.

BARTLETT: That's Tess Dooms, director at political think tank Rivonia Circle.

DOOMS: You're sitting in a country that has the highest rates of unemployment on the continent and in some cases in the world that definitely is the most unequal country by GDP. We've got crime rates that are at war levels.

BARTLETT: Multiple opinion polls predict the A&C could get below 50% for the first time and have to go into a coalition. Their once-storied image has been tainted by years of graft and corruption scandals, failure to deliver basic services and a youth unemployment rate of around 60%. Test deems again.

DOOMS: Young people are not just disillusioned by political parties. They're disillusioned by the idea of democracy itself. You can't blame anything but democracy for your circumstances if you don't have water, sanitation, a job, prospects or a future.

TSHEPISO MPELE: As the group, we're going to discuss this. Make it a debate. I'm giving you another five minutes.

BARTLETT: These young South Africans, attending a freedom festival celebration in Johannesburg, marking 30 years of democracy, are so-called born frees, a generation who never knew the horrors of apartheid. South Africa has a predominantly young population. If they showed up in their numbers, they could change the course of the election. But many, like Tshepiso Mpele, won't.

MPELE: I haven't voted. Don't think I'll ever vote. I see voting as an endorsement of corruption. I see it as an endorsement of what is happening right now. So my way of protesting would be to say that I don't vote.

BARTLETT: Unanthi Mzileni disagrees.

UNANTHI MZILENI: I have never voted before, but I think I will this time around. And the reason that I've not been voting, it's simply because of - we were sold a dream.

BARTLETT: It's a sentiment echoed by fellow festival attendee, 24-year-old Cameron Smith. They say they definitely intend to vote, but understand why some young people don't.

CAMERON SMITH: I think that we were born as born frees with this expectation and this idea that, I don't know, we would have fixed everything, but obviously, that isn't the case. The legacy of apartheid lives in everything that we do. Democracy for one of us is not democracy for another.

BARTLETT: A generation that has the power to change South Africa's course. Next month's election will be a chance to test that.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kate Bartlett
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