JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - When Nelson Mandela and his ANC party dreamed of South Africa’s future after apartheid, they probably imagined someone like Fulufhelo Davhana, a young black who has seen the doors of opportunity opened wide and is destined for achievement.
But Davhana, a 23-year-old accounting student at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto Campus, is dreaming of a future when the African National Congress elders who ended white minority rule no longer call the shots.
“Our current leaders don’t understand about the ‘born free’ generation because they are still stuck in the past,” he said.
These South Africans, who were born after apartheid ended in 1994 and have lived only under democracy, can vote for the first time in presidential elections next year and could begin reshaping politics in Africa’s largest economy.
Many older South Africans still feel grateful to the ANC for winning their freedom, ensuring the party unbroken power for the past two decades. However, the “born frees” are not as swayed by history as their elders, and studies show that most people reaching the minimum voting age of 18 have no party allegiance.
With youth unemployment double the national average at about 50 percent, they instead want to hold the ANC under President Jacob Zuma accountable for the rampant corruption and bureaucratic incompetence that even the party admits are undermining its governance.
A TV advertising campaign this month by a leading bank has stoked the conflict. It shows teenagers speaking hopefully of their future but criticizing the ANC for being stuck in the past and unwilling to fix current problems.
“We need to stop relying on government and rely on ourselves,” one student said. “The government is only thinking for themselves. I’m from a rural area and the government doesn’t see what’s happening,” said another.
Some members of the 101-year-old ANC accused First National Bank of treason and sending messages that were “disrespectful to elders”. The chief executive of FNB’s parent, financial group FirstRand, met the ANC on Friday to clear the air.
While the meeting took the heat out of their row, the generational divide will only grow in importance. It could transform elections which the ANC has become used to winning with the support of voters thankful that it ended the system of racial oppression.
South Africa is a young country: about 40 percent of the population was born after 1994. Nearly two million born frees can vote next year, when Zuma is likely to seek re-election.
This is a relatively small percentage of the 23 million-strong electorate. However, the born frees will make up about a third of voters by 2019, when the following presidential election is due, according to census and election data.
Zuma says he is unconcerned. “The overwhelming percentage of South Africa is very young so it is this very population that is joining the ANC, that is voting (for) the ANC, so we don’t have a worry,” he told Reuters last week.
The numbers tell a different story. Nearly 75 percent of South Africans aged 20-29 did not vote in 2011 elections for local posts, according to electoral data and studies by government-affiliated groups, far more than in other age groups.
South Africans in that age group were more likely to have taken part in violent street protests against the local ANC than to have voted for the ruling party, studies showed.
Zuma, a 70-year-old Zulu traditionalist who has called for young ANC members to obey their elders, has looked to older voters for support in rural areas instead of the young blacks flocking to the cities.
Last year he told parliament he was worried about black people “who become too clever” because they could become the sharpest critics of African tradition and culture.
Such comments have stirred up storms on social media but while the young voters may not like Zuma, so far they appear to be withholding their votes from any leader.
Many hope the ANC will start serving their interests better and are not flocking to the main opposition Democratic Alliance, which is trying to woo young blacks and shed its image as the party of white privilege.
“We are tired of being told ‘we are going to change this and we are going to change that’. If implementation starts, then that is where a party will get my vote,” said Davhana.
According to the Reconciliation Barometer, an annual survey published for more than a decade that tracks the views of young adults, the born free generation is optimistic, confident the economy will grow and distrustful of current leaders.
“(The) findings also point to a disconnect and a rising cynicism between younger South Africans, the born free generation, and this country’s past,” it said.
ANC governments have made great strides in bringing new schools, housing and running water to the impoverished millions.
But they have also set up a labor market ranked as one of the world’s most rigid where it is difficult for young people to land a job. A study by the South African Institute of Race Relations said about half of today’s youth faced a lifetime of unemployment.
The born frees have been described as a ticking time bomb, needing massive social grants that could bankrupt the country, if the tide is not turned on unemployment. But if the power of the generation is harnessed, it could pay an enormous demographic dividend.
The generation marks a temporary bulge in the birth rate two decades ago, and the growing numbers of young will have a proportionately declining population of elderly to support. This means South Africa could avoid the problems of an ageing population that many Western countries experience - provided the young can find work.
“We have so many young people in the country who are more educated than there were previously and don’t have the same burden of older people to support,” said Sharlene Swartz, a director at the Human Sciences Research Council, a think tank.
“The population level beneath them is dropping and this could lead to a huge economic growth spurt for the country.”
Back at the University of Johannesburg campus in Soweto, near where students rose against the apartheid government in the 1970s, Wendy Langa, 21, is studying to become an entrepreneur.
“It is empowering to know that South Africa is born free and there is no more struggling. We need to focus more on education and making this country a better place,” she said.
Langa said she would vote next year “not for what a party did in its past, but what it will do in the future”.
editing by David Stamp