Young and free in history’s shadow


Through intimate portraits of South Africans of all kinds, After Freedom reveals how the polarities, conflicts and ruptures of the past are the sine qua non of our vexed present. In this accessible and incisive diagnosis of post-apartheid South Africa, sociologists Katherine Newman and Ariane De Lannoy explore how “ordinary people, particularly the South Africans who came of age during the post-apartheid transition, see the country that is their birthright”. By theorising from the ground up, from the lived experience of several individual South Africans, who stand at “distinctive points on the spectrum of race and class in Cape Town”, they wonder aloud about the major themes of the new South Africa: racial animus, racial classification, reconciliation, class inequality, land ownership, privilege, and the limits placed on opportunity by the structural dispossessions installed in the past carried over into our nascent democracy.

After Freedom cannot be accused of being dour, homogeneous or straight-laced. It is variegated and polymorphous – almost kaleidoscopic in form. With great composure, it blends narrative, personal history, biography, and structural analysis into a fluid social ontology. Despite the wide thematic berth, it never loses sight of its guiding question: what is it like for the young of this country to negotiate the present non-racial democratic social order under the lingering effects of a destructive past?

A constant refrain of the book is the conundrum of post-apartheid social dislocation. History cannot be wiped clean. Ostensible solutions throw up additional problems, forging new lines of factional conflict: “where race was once the main dividing line, widening class differences – which were there in the past, but submerged under race – have added layers of complexity”.

With its penchant for mixing narration (a little overblown at times), oral history, photography, historical analysis and social critique, the book’s trans-disciplinary verve makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, informative and troubling read. It traces the living stories and textured histories of Thandiswa, Amanda, Ambrose, Daniel, Anna and Brandon (as well as a panoply of secondary characters) which distil the fault lines that rut South African society and articulate the new, porous identities emerging from the frenzied admixture of modernity, custom, capitalism, democracy and globalisation.

Newman and De Lannoy coax their interlocutors, the protagonists of the book, to reflect on the conditions of their own psycho-social existence: a self-reflective peeling back of the layers of anger and trauma which mark the lives of all encumbered by apartheid. By moving from the personal predicaments of these ordinary subjects to the historical making of their lives, this ethnography enumerates how the structural inequities of legislated Apartheid, together with global capitalism, continue to dispossess young South Africans 20 years after the arrival of democracy in a social order that is far from an open opportunity society.

While it lacks the argumentative rigour and academic ardour of other recently published titles which cast an inquisitive gaze at democratic South Africa, the book does bring into full view the dispersal of attitudes towards the relative difficulties of being black, white and coloured, female and male, rich or poor in a society where the intertwining of race, class and gender continue to dictate how (well) one lives.

After Freedom is published by Beacon Press and is available from

EXTRACT: A Rumour of Spring by Max du Preez

South Africans are like the old Karoo farmer standing on his stoep watching the abundant rain quenching the earth’s thirst after a long drought. He does this every day for a week as the water comes down, just stands there, pulling on his pipe. On the eighth day the rain suddenly stops and the sun breaks through. The farmer looks up at the heavens with a scowl: ‘Daar begin die volgende donnerse droogte al weer!’ (There the next damn drought starts again.)

Sure, there is a lot more angst now, two decades after the golden era of Nelson Mandela. We have squandered a lot of our opportunities as a nation and we know that crunch-time is fast approaching. The political temperature is rising as the black majority’s resentment at the continued inequality in society is building up. Many of us are frustrated that the ANC couldn’t make the shift from liberation movement to governing party in an open democracy; that it has produced leaders with little vision and leadership; that it has allowed corruption and nepotism to become institutionalised. There is certainly reason to be angry that corporate South Africa hasn’t joined the project of transforming our society with more enthusiasm.

But most of us, even the poor, are better off now than before 1994, materially and in terms of personal freedoms and quality of life.

We have what has become the most valuable commodity in the world today: stability. Stability is more than just the absence of violence and mayhem. Stability means predictability: the knowledge that a state will maintain the rule of law; that the Constitution and the laws of the land will be applied; that the legal system is fair, credible and operational.

Our stability is rooted in our splendid Constitution and the fact that no one has tried to mess with it so far; in our strong institutions; our vibrant civil society; our free and independent media; our basically sound economy; our innovative business community; and our growing black middle class. We may curse and resent one another when we operate in racial or ethnic groups, but most South Africans are actually getting along just fine in our neighbourhoods, boardrooms, offices and churches, and on our factory floors and streets.

We do not have a tradition of military interference in politics such as Egypt, Zimbabwe and other countries have. Thanks to the credibility and efficiency of our Independent Electoral Commission, the legality and credibility of our elections are never in doubt.

We have the most sophisticated road and rail infrastructure in the develop- ing world; the best airports and airlines that run on time; the most advanced banking system; excellent fixed-line and cellular phone connections; and the most print and electronic media outlets.

What about the almost daily service-delivery protests and the often violent strikes by trade unions, I hear you ask. Yes, these are symptoms of serious fault lines in our society and we do seem to be more boisterous in our protests than most other societies. At the same time, these actions also remind us that we do not live in a police state, but in a democracy where dissension and protest are allowed. They do not fundamentally undermine our stability, in the same way recent violent protests in Brazil and Turkey didn’t make those countries unstable states.

When confronted by those who predict an imminent collapse and a Zimbabwe-type situation, I always advise an hour on Google. Go and read what is happening with crime, corruption, nepotism, media and personal freedom, and indeed democracy in the powerful state of Russia, a democracy three years older than ours. Look at the crumbling economies and financial instability of old democracies such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. Read about the coup in Egypt and how recent events have fractured that society, supposed to be the most stable in that region. Investigate the perpetual instability in Pakistan, and the bloody civil war in Syria. Even take note of the divisions, lack of social cohesion and occasional government paralysis in the mighty America. And then appreciate the sunny southern tip of Africa a little more.

Many of us fear the same things and ask the same questions we did when the negotiations between the ANC and the National Party government started in 1990, twenty-three years ago. We should learn to understand what could potentially go wrong in our society and what is highly unlikely to go wrong. We tend to overreact so much to negative indicators that we don’t even notice the positive ones.

When our president uses public money to fund his private villa at Nkandla or allows his Gupta friends to treat South Africa as their own backyard, we should howl and protest, but to start shouting that we are a banana republic is just silly.

If there were one thing I would like us South Africans to learn from other societies it would be that the president and the government of the day do not define who and what we are as a people and a country.

My lefty friends in New York moaned and bitched about George W. Bush when he was president and called him names that I can’t repeat here. But they didn’t say America was rotten and start making plans to emigrate. America is still America, but Barack Obama has brought a whole new vision, style and political culture.

We might have a weak and ineffectual government and a rather embarrassing president right now, but our country and our people are as vibrant and strong as we were when we negotiated that unlikely settlement in 1994, and as magnificent as we saw ourselves to be when we won the Rugby World Cup twice and hosted the most spectacular Soccer World Cup in 2010.

Let me be frank: there is a lot more to South Africa and South Africans than Jacob Zuma and his present crop of ANC leaders. In fact, there is a lot more to the ANC than Zuma and Co.

I attended a breakfast briefing by futurologist and scenario mapper Clem Sunter early in 2013. He gave a lively, engaging and entertaining presentation, and I was most impressed. It all sounded so logical.

But on my way home I felt the irritation grow inside me. Sunter had just told me that there was a 25 per cent probability of South Africa becoming a failed state. In fact, he said the failed-state scenario was no longer a wild-card possibility lurking in the shadows: it was now a genuine threat.

Why, I thought, would he even say the words ‘failed state’ and ‘South Africa’ in one sentence? Why was he devoting his time and energy to measuring whether we are about to become like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Afghanistan? Okay, 25 per cent is a low mark, but as he himself said, would you board a plane if you were told there was a 25 per cent chance that you would die?

I think it is completely inappropriate and sends an alarmist message. It’s doing the same as the predictions that we are facing an imminent Arab Spring, a phenomenon that wreaked havoc in Libya and Egypt and resulted in the Syrian civil war.

If you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find reasons to say states like Brazil, Greece, Argentina, Turkey, Poland, Italy and Spain should also be on a list of countries with some probability of becoming failed states.

rumour-of-sprint-thumb Extracted from A Rumour of Spring by Max du Preez, published by Zebra Press and available from Read our review here.

Twenty years later


Max du Preez is a critical thinker in a country where there is too much criticism and too little meaningful thinking. In A Rumour of Spring – his attempt to answer “Where are we now after 20 years of democracy?” – he has embraced the need to have a thorough grounding of history to understand the present. His writing on the exiled ANC is particularly illuminating – and goes a long way to help explain the undemocratic tendencies of some of the party’s contemporary leaders. His attempts to empathise, to understand, and to appreciate multiple points-of-view means he’s capable of capturing complex issues with nuance and maturity. His reflections on race are fascinating and refreshing.

A Rumour of Spring is strongest in its documenting the mixed record of the ANC’s two decades of rule. Du Preez eloquently explores key governance issues, including land reform, policing and the judiciary, education, health. In these sections there is the greatest detail, the greatest time spent formulating diagnoses about what the ruling party has and hasn’t achieved. Here is the data, and the textured arguments he builds from those. He mostly works hard not generalise, though at other times the scale of his assumptions are cringe inducing. A random example is: “SADTU is most ordinary South Africans’ pet hate.” Perhaps the destructive teachers’ union might be, but how would he know? Did he do a survey?

When looking ahead, Du Preez is on wobblier ground. While forecasting the future is often a futile exercise – and he is to be commended for effectively rubbishing the claims South Africa could easily become a failed state – his look to the future at the end of the book is too brief and too superficial. The post-apartheid political opposition (both its past and its future) is a particular blind spot. The DA’s trajectory, from a 1.7% minnow in 1994 to attaining nearly 17% of the vote in 2009 goes unexplored; the chief architect of much of this growth, Tony Leon, gets a single mention. In the final chapter, du Preez tells us the DA wants to expand its support amongst black voters, but no attempt is made to assess how or whether the party can achieve this. No effort is made to unpack its vision of “an open opportunity society for all” – and whether or not this is a vision that a majority of voters can get behind. The party “does still struggle with its white ‘neoliberal’ roots” du Preez tells us. It is hard to discern quite what is meant by this breezy pronouncement, but presumably there is, in there, the implication that the DA should be ashamed of its liberal ideals (the very ideals that saw its predecessor parties fight apartheid).

Du Preez seems to have something of a soft spot for the former struggle activist and businesswoman, Mamphela Ramphele. Writing before the ill-fated – and shortlived – announcement that she was to become the DA’s presidential candidate, du Preez lauds her for not becoming “tainted” by allowing her party to join the “‘white liberal’ DA”. This is ironic for someone who appears to have a very genuine desire to see South Africans’ political identities become less intertwined with their racial ones. Du Preez also tells us that Agang has “a lot of money” – an unsubstantiated and, as it turns out, inaccurate claim.

A Rumour of Spring is an essential albeit uneven book: a compelling, articulate and conversational diagnosis of where we’ve come from, and where we are now. You should read it.

A Rumour of Spring is published by Zebra Press and is available from