Finding Mandela’s ‘Guinea-pig’ generation

Siyabonga Hadebe

Siyabonga Hadebe

Published Jan 3, 2024


Siyabonga Hadebe

It has been a while since I wrote on grassroots community issues. I often talk about this subject that I will discuss today with my closest friends: I would rather not mention them by their first names.

Many of this ‘guinea pig’ generation will undoubtedly identify with this story I am pouring out today.

We are Mandela’s children in every respect because our lives have followed more or less the same trajectory since we met as youngsters many moons ago.

We are this group of young people representing everything good or bad about the post-1994 period.

Everything was tested on us, making us eminent guinea pigs of this democracy.

We were the kids who were sent to certain institutions that were previously whites-only, such as Tukkies, Stellenbosch and Pretoria Technikon. We somehow managed to complete our studies and joined the job market mainly as affirmative action candidates in predominantly white institutions.

By the way, the government and other parastatals like Eskom, Telkom, Iskor and Denel were lily-white.

We welcomed exiles and TBVC people in our midst. We had to prove to whites who believed that one’s black skin was a curse by God: they would refuse to share food and spaces with us because apartheid was still alive. A black man belonged in the garden and was suitable for harsh labour under the blazing sun.

Nonetheless, we transitioned to become professionals in our own right and started to make our own families. The majority of this happened very quickly and in a short space. Many of us are not even 50, but we have had good experiences at work and in our personal lives. The young, old men!

Today, we have kids in their twenties or teens. That is where Mandela’s miracle stops, and that is what I wish to talk about: our children and lifestyle.

Please do not blame or judge me or anyone in my generation; our children and lifestyle show us flames. Not that we regret or do not look forward to tomorrow, but our phenomenal story is becoming tricky for all of us.

Let me start: The life that we lead, we are experiencing today, and we have never witnessed it before. This means we are the first in the downtrodden, oppressed black community to be what we are today. We are not just super educated and have excellent jobs; we have transformed the black family structure into something that I cannot even explain myself.

In my case, both my parents did not have much education. That means that they probably never earned what I got as a 27-year-old in their lifetime. As the flashy generation, we have introduced different ways of living.

Whereas our parents were generally migrant workers who had their wives and children very far away, we have built families similar to those of whites. My wife is not a ‘makoti’ but a mother of my children and an independent, educated individual in her own right.

We are real city crawlers. We have houses and all our life in the suburbs.

And our children cannot even associate with the places we grew up, at both psychological and physical levels. They have attended the best schools and received the best education that money can buy. Travelling to different places within and without the country is not a matter of Hollywood movies or CNN; they know other cultures, societies, etc.

It would be unfair to put figures on school fees due to obvious sensitivities, but the good thing is that most of the information is publicly available these days.

Our ascent to the top happened while the lives of many people in our communities also regressed.

This situation makes it extremely hard for many in my generation to access the traditionally black spaces like townships, squatter camps and rural areas.

The gap is just too broad and is expanding each day. Unfortunately, our societal or national consciousness is not alive to this saddening reality: we are a ‘Stolen Generation’ that was physically, mentally and socially removed from our communities to assimilate these children into the dominant European culture.

National consciousness is a shared sense of identity and belonging among people with a common cultural, historical, and geographical heritage. It is a complex phenomenon shaped by various factors, including language, religion, traditions, and symbols.

National consciousness can be a powerful force for unity and cooperation but can also be a source of division and conflict. Together with our children, we are generally removed from the societies that gave birth to us. We are South Africa’s petit-bourgeoisie: we are more comfortable in white spaces than we are in black communities.

At least for us, there is still something that still says we are part of black communities. We know the lifestyle, language and sub-cultures, which means that it is difficult to tell us apart from our contemporaries in black areas. However, that is where everything stops: we are worlds away from them, materially and otherwise.

But to be honest, white spaces have not been very good to us in every respect.

Today, we suffer from depression and cultural isolation. Our integration into the dominant European culture in cities has been painstakingly slow, painful and frustrating. We were dumped in the middle of the ocean by those who were forging a ‘new’ nation. We are in a cul-de-sac and do not see light at the end of the tunnel.

We are a large group of baby boomers (50-60s), Generation X (40-50s) and millennials (30-40s).

There is one profound reality that our group is facing. We are considered too young to lead and too old to be trusted to do anything. For example, it will happen that many of us are ready to go on retirement, still treated as children. Our fathers are presidents and ministers who look at us as toddlers.

At the same time, we have given birth to very dynamic Generation Z or Ama-2000s, who are now in their teens and twenties. Personally, I have three of this generation of a special type. Our children look up to us for solutions but realise how lost and depressed we are. It is rather difficult for them to take us seriously, yet they cannot wish us away.

After all, we have everything they are and know possible.

However, our children have had to carry the emotional and psychological burden of our suffering. Living in depression and cultural isolation is a tall mountain to climb. Unfortunately, we have taken our kids with us into these empty spaces. Our children have inherited the privileges and the heavy load of their parents' experiences. The emotional and psychological struggles of the older generation have been passed on to their children, impacting their ability to navigate their own identities and futures.

At no other time in black people’s history have we experienced calamities like nyaope (drugs), Nyobeni (drunkenness), serope-mperekele (low morals) and outright lawlessness. Our children cry for help, but the parents are still busy nursing their pain and trying to make sense of their wilderness.

Are we angry, frustrated or disillusioned? Yes.

Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, political and global matters.

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