You’d be forgiven for not expecting much from 18-year-old Yanga Sithethe. He looks like a young hip hop-slash-pantsula-wanna-be, with a laid-back attitude accompanied by an unpolished, could-pass-for-a-former-Model C-trained-English accent. It’s when he talks about his hopes and dreams, rather some of his failed dreams, that this young man’s true character shines.
Sithethe’s as old as South Africa’s fragile democracy. He’s among tens of thousands of others referred to as the Born Free generation, purely by virtue of being born in post-apartheid South Africa, who wrote their matric exams this year.
The Born Frees carry the hopes of many South Africans for a better life, an improved standard of living and equal opportunities. But Sithethe’s reality is a bitter pill to swallow; at just 18, he has little faith in the government. “The youth which studied under Bantu education, had to struggle with overcrowded classes, unqualified and semi-skilled teachers. It’s scary how we are still facing similar challenges in 2012.”
Here’s a youngster who clearly longs for life in the suburbs and for the stability of belonging to a ‘proper’ home. He’s currently living with his 13-year-old brother and a much younger, orphaned cousin in a rented house in Tembisa. These boys are apart from their mother, who is renting a room elsewhere in the township, just north east of Joburg.
This young man is so clued-up. He easily goes from discussing the faces of current politics, to reminiscing about heroes of yesteryear such as Steve Biko. He also has an acute awareness of the legacies of the likes of Africa’s Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda.
Just like any young person, he carries a bag of full dreams, from wanting to launch into a singing career, to having presidential hopes. He wants to buy his unemployed mother a house one day and get himself a car. Sithethe has had to shed some of those dreams - most of which, to many, are incredibly basic and are often taken for granted.
Now, having finished his exams at one of Tembisa’s best looking schools, Sithethe thinks a lot more still needs to be done to improve the quality of education in the townships. This is especially so when he compares his high school to more prestigious former Model C schools, which have cricket pitches, swimming pools and tuck shops on the school grounds.
Sithethe dreamed of getting a Model C education, with better learning opportunities and of sitting in a classroom that wasn’t overflowing with learners. It’s a dream he was never able to fulfil.
His dream of a better life for his mother, brother and cousin pushes him. He’s holding onto the hope of becoming a political analyst one day, but before even applying to for a loan, he’s stressing about the quality of his results. “I doubt my marks will be like the better educated learners, who get attention and proper help from their teachers and are able to produce six or seven distinctions. I think I need to take a gap year and maybe find a way to improve my marks and put food on the table.”
He knows that a matric certificate isn’t going to get him the job that he needs. In a sense, it shows how the first generation of the Born Frees’ have been let down. “Maybe I can go work in a supermarket or even collect rubbish.”
Now, in a world where dreaming big is the order of the day, a young potential thought leader looks to minimum wage and rubbish dump collections, just to escape the ever threatening sounds of daily hunger pangs.
“They call us the free generation, but the truth is we are still facing a long walk to freedom ourselves.”