Young, gifted, black – and free

Justice Malala

I am not one to go ga-ga over birthdays. I am disconcerted, but not surprised, by the fervour with which many of my countrymen – and peoples elsewhere in the world – have embraced celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday.

I guess this is the point at which I should write that although I am cynical about birthdays I, too, am feeling a bit sentimental about this one. Well, actually not. The Mandela birthday celebrations have not really touched me much except for the fact that just the other day I heard that a former colleague had left her job. And that got me thinking about Mandela.

“Mandela is 90 years old and I am going to see the world,” she said. And she was gone, just like that, to travel through the African continent.

And I thought: Freedom. It never ceases to amaze me just how heady the freedom that South Africa has today changes lives. Every so often it hits me as young black kids take gap years to build dams in South America, or do something daring in Europe, how free and full of opportunity we have become.

About four months ago a friend forwarded me an email that had been written by a colleague of his. The colleague was a young man in his early 30s who had decided to chuck in the job, buy a 4×4 and travel through Africa from Cairo to the Cape with a friend. And a credit card.

Their journey was hilarious, harrowing, fun and adventurous. Every week or so the young man would find an internet connection, send mass emails and pictures, and take up the story of what they had been through. There were stories of lateness, of generosity, of promptness, of hunger and poverty. Africa was alive, ugly and beautiful and frustrating and fulfilling.

If you are European this is not particularly new or even that daring. But this young man is a black South African. And that is telling. Eighteen years ago black South Africans were still living under the strictures of apartheid. Their lives and those of progressive whites were intolerable.

Freedom. Eighteen years later, a minuscule time in the mammoth task of building a nation, these same “victims” of apartheid are not living under the depression of apartheid. They are free to express themselves as they wish, without fear of censure.

My friend who has decided to travel through the continent is young and talented. She finished school, worked and rose up fast. She decided to go off and backpack through the continent.

When Mandela became president in 1994 he spoke about how his new government was about extending the frontiers of human endeavour. Citing the poet Ingrid Jonker, he said: “The government I have the honour to lead and I dare say the masses who elected us to serve in this role, are inspired by the single vision of creating a people-centred society.

Accordingly, the purpose that will drive this government shall be the expansion of the frontiers of human fulfilment, the continuous extension of the frontiers of that freedom.”

Like many across the world, South Africa is today burdened by the international economic slowdown. Food prices are sky high and transport costs are being driven up inexorably by the rampant oil price. Plus we have our own massive challenges: HIV/Aids, crime and others.

The “expansion of the frontiers of human fulfilment” that Mandela spoke about, in these tough times, is something very easily overlooked. But incredibly, it is here. I saw it just the other day when thousands of people queued across the country to buy shares of the energy parastatal Sasol in a public offering to encourage black participation in the economy.

In those queues were young men and women, mothers and fathers and grandparents, all of them buying a stake in South Africa’s economy. The “frontiers of human fulfillment”, in a small way, were being expanded in those queues. Certainly, the camaraderie in those queues indicated to me at least that dignity had been restored to people.

On a flight from Mauritius recently, I was incredible to see the number of black people – many of them young backpackers – on the flight. A group of them were chatting excitedly about their exploits. This is a scene that would have been a curiosity 10years ago. I am finding that it is a normal occurrence, just another fruit of our democracy and freedom, these days.

I see nowadays, constantly, freedom expressed in so many ways by young South Africans who seem to have shed the hang-ups, the sheer weight, that those of us older folk seem to carry. They live, fully and untethered, a free life.

It is in them, perhaps, that the spirit of Nelson Mandela is best expressed. He is not just a symbol of freedom. These young people, they are that freedom.

Justice Malala is an award-winning former newspaper editor, and is now general manager of Avusa’s stable of 56 magazines. He writes weekly columns for The Times newspaper and Financial Mail magazine, as well as a monthly media and politics column for Empire magazine. He is the resident political analyst for independent television channel and has consulted extensively for financial institutions on South African political risk. Malala was also an executive producer on Hard Copy I and II, a ground-breaking television series on SABC 3. Hard Copy I won the Golden Horn Award for best television series. Malala’s work has been published internationally in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Independent, Forbes, Institutional Investor, The Age and The Observer.