The Born Free Generation: Did Apartheid Really End?

Disclaimer: The term “Coloured or Coloureds” in the context of South Africa refers to a multiracial ethnic group and was a legally defined racial classification during apartheid. While the designation no longer exists in a legal capacity, coloured communities have taken back this word and it has evolved into a self-definition of this particular society and culture. While this term may be offensive in other countries, it has a different cultural significance in South Africa.

Disclaimer: The term “Coloured or Coloureds” in the context of South Africa refers to a multiracial ethnic group and was a legally defined racial classification during apartheid. While the designation no longer exists in a legal capacity, coloured communities have taken back this word and it has evolved into a self-definition of this  particular society and culture. While this term may be offensive in other countries, it has a different cultural significance in South Africa. 

Matlwa’s debut novel, Coconut, was published in 2007 while she was still undertaking her medical degree. In Coconut, Matlwa tackles the question of identity in the new post-apartheid South Africa. Spilt Milk was released a few years later in 2010; and though it bears similarities to Coconut, Spilt Milk focused more on the disappointments that the “Born Free” generation faced.

The “Born Free” generation refers to South Africans who were born after the fall of apartheid, in April 27th 1994. The fall of apartheid is a significant part of South African history as it meant, for the first time in 50 years, a “free and racially undivided South Africa.”[mfn] Matlwa was disappointed with the state of post-apartheid South Africa because black twonships remained the same,  and while pursuing medicine Matlwa noticed the deteriorating state of the healthcare system, which served as inspiration for the themes of both Spilt Milk and Coconut.[mfn] 

The writing that received international acclaim? Coconut. 

Coconut is a coming-of-age novel that speaks to a new generation attempting to reconnect with their identity, mother tongue and ancestral heritage. The Born Free generation, specifically black and coloured communities,  struggled with the lingering consequences of segregation. 

In my opinion, Coconut bears a striking resemblance to Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; an African woman trying to assimilate into a (predominantly white) American society. In Coconut the main protagonists, Fiks and Ofilwe are attempting to assimilate into white South African society. 

The title, Coconut, is a term used to describe “black people who are considered to be white people on the inside.”[mfn] It is for this reason that the novel follows two young black women who have grown up in the white South African suburbs. Ofilwe has grown up privileged but soon finds her diminishing sense of culture to be a problem. Fiks is set to make her way to Johannesburg to establish a more sophisticated life for herself. She quickly comes to realise that this is easier said than done and the harsh realities of her background hinder this idealistic life she is chasing after. 

Although Spilt Milk bears striking similarities to Coconut; Coconut’s theme centres around internalised racism whereas Spilt Milk centres around interracial love. Matlwa attempts to tackle South African democracy through the lenses of Father Bill, a white priest and Tshokolo Mohumagadi, a black headmistress. The two protagonists begin to develop feelings for one another and, eventually, attempt to form a relationship. The relationship is an anecdote of sorts; attempting to make sense of South Africa’s troubled past and racial tensions; because interracial relationships were still be considered taboo. 
           While the end of apartheid saw the growth of a black, coloured and asian middle class, many of the geographic and economic apartheid structures remain. For poor black people, living in townships or in the homelands, not much has changed. They’re hit harder by recession, inflation and unemployment. Their schools remain overcrowded and underfunded with poor infrastructure. They still have to commute long distances from settlements established during the height of apartheid to find work.[mfn]

The ending of apartheid has changed nothing for them. They are expected by some to be grateful for the right to do things: such as eat, swim, live and work where they like in their own country. They are expected, by some, to be grateful for the opportunity, if they had the money, to share the facilities that white people have enjoyed freely for decades.

In an NPR interview, Matlwa stated that the “characters and relationships symbolize the political and personal disappointments she and other South Africans endure…it does represent the love lost between white and black South Africa, and the promises that we all made to each other in 1994 that none of us kept. We would never admit to each other that we actually need each other and that we can’t build this country without each other.”[mfn]

Footnotes

  1. Sipho Mpongo, “The ‘Born-Free’ Generation – Anthropology Now,” December 21, 2016, https://anthronow.com/print/the-born-free-generation.
  2. Bill Gates, “This Doctor/Novelist Is Tackling Malnutrition,” gatesnotes.com, February 25, 2020, https://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/Heroes-in-the-Field-Dr-Kopano-Matlwa-Mabaso.
  3.  Kat Chow and Gene Demby, “Overthinking It: Using Food as a Racial Metaphor,” NPR.org, September 14, 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/09/12/348008432/overthinking-it-using-food-as-a-racial-metaphor.
  4. Margaret Roberts, “The Ending of Apartheid: Shifting Inequalities in South Africa,” Geography 79, no. 1 (1994): 53–64,https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/40572386.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A4d20bae21477d3d56c0e72666b96fb9c.
  5. “In South Africa, No Crying over ‘Spilt Milk’?,” NPR.org, September 4, 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/09/05/160550559/in-south-africa-no-crying-over-spilt-milk.