Generation Born Free; 'Granny Must Groove,' Rap the Youth in South Africa. but Do They Know How She Fought for Their Freedom?

Article excerpt

Byline: Tom Masland

The African National Congress bused teenagers to downtown Johannesburg by the hundreds last week for a Human Rights Day holiday festival. For old activists, the venue conjured up the sting of tear gas: Newtown, with its Market Theater, was a hub of resistance to apartheid during the 1980s. In case anyone missed the political message, the stage backdrop bore the slogan a decade of delivery. Early in the afternoon, a rapper exhorted the audience, "You all are going to vote, right?" But there the politics ended, and the booty-shaking began. And what finally whipped the crowd to a frenzy was a rendition by the hot young rapper Mzekemzeke of his current hit. "When Granny is away, we're grooving," the kids sang out. "Let's hope she won't catch us. But if she does, she must groove, too."

Politically, the rally was probably a wasted effort. Although South Africa is one of the most politically active countries in the world--20.7 million of 27.5 million people eligible to vote have registered--polls suggest that fewer than half of eligible young voters 18 to 24 will turn out on Election Day, April 14. The balloting will mark the 10th anniversary of the country's first democratic elections, which followed years of protest by radicalized youth. Yet the generation of South Africans that has grown up since Nelson Mandela walked out of jail in 1990--sometimes called the "Born Frees"--are as apolitical as their peers in Europe or the United States. "Politics is a nonevent," says John Simpson, a professor at the University of Cape Town who has extensively polled South African youth. "Twenty years ago young people were at the vanguard of the struggle for change. Now kids are saying you must look after yourself, that social issues are not important."

Lamentable as such an attitude may be, it's considered normal in some of the world's most stable democracies. And it doesn't mean South African kids today are apathetic. On the contrary. The Born Frees have strong opinions on things that interest them--sports, relationships, sneakers, cell phones, computers, malls and the home-brewed brand of dance music known as kwaito . They are blessedly colorblind, and convinced there's no limit to what they can do.

The ANC arrived late to this party. Its elders--and South African parents generally--were appalled at the often violent and misogynist early messages of rap. They shunned the new authors of hip-hop's local variant when kwaito hit the scene in 1993 with a single by Arthur Mofokate, "Don't Call Me Kaffir [n-----]." Other young iconoclasts did their damnedest to outrage society, even attacking veterans of the antiapartheid movement like President Thabo Mbeki. In 2002, when the kwaito group Skwatta Kamp issued a cut that dissed politicians generally and included the line "Our president is an alcoholic," the ANC Youth League fought back. The group wanted the song pulled off the air--which only gave the insult a wider hearing.

Mbeki himself denies that South Africa's youngsters are apolitical. Just last week he insisted in a radio interview that they're "conscious of their role and place in the future of South Africa." But there's no denying that such high-minded talk no longer translates for many youngsters. Unathi Nkayi, a 25-year-old DJ on Johannesburg's most popular radio station, Yfm, says that South African youth "are tired of being told that they are important--that the youth is the country's future. …