Freedom is ... the latest mobile

April 30, 2004

Ten years after the end of apartheid, South Africa's 'Born Free' generation are colour-blind, confident, brand-obsessed consumers, writes Karen MacGregor.

"South African kids are sick of negativity," says Wandi Nzimande, the co-founder of the hit local fashion brand Loxion Kulca, slang for location (black township) culture.

"Our problems are not exclusive. We have learnt from Nelson Mandela and the truth and reconciliation process. They tell us: 'Forget about your mistakes and move on to better things - you can do it!'"

Nzimande embodies the spirit and dreams of 11 million seven to 17-year-olds, a generation known as the "Born Frees" because they entered the world (or spent their formative years) after apartheid began to crumble in 1990. Children have changed as radically as South Africa has in the ten years since the first democratic elections on April -28 1994.

Born Frees are techno-literate, plugged into world trends and materialistic. They are hooked on brands, ambitious and convinced that they can change the world. On the cusp of entering higher education, their self-confidence is already starting to impact positively on universities, academics say.

Significantly for a still race-divided nation, they are also colour blind - different cultural and race groups mix freely, have similar attitudes and like the same products and brands.

In fact, says John Simpson, head of Cape Town University's Institute of Strategic Marketing, "in terms of attitudes and behaviour, black and white kids are identical". There are differences in wealth - a teenager may have one or two pairs of jeans - but rich or poor, kids are wearing, and thinking, the same things. "This is a really significant change."

The institute conducted the most illuminating study yet of this age group in South Africa, called Trend Youth 2. It followed a Trend Youth 1 study that looked at 18 to 24-year-olds, and it involved 3,000 face-to-face interviews and 15 focus groups nationwide, and surveyed mostly black inner-city youths.

Two in five South Africans are under the age of 18 years - 17.3 million in all - and the Born Frees are the country's largest generation. They are also influential economically - they spend more than R4 billion (£330 million) a year, and their parents spend R20 billion a year on them.

The research grouped Born Frees into Have-lots and Have-nots, and then into Tweens (seven to 12-year-olds) and Teens (13 to 17-year-olds).

Race and class divides may be blurring, but Tweens and Teens are very different. Indeed, each age group has its characteristics, with children rejecting younger groups and aspiring to the age group ahead. Tastes change quickly and, as elsewhere, children are getting older younger - especially township youth, who often have to look after family at a young age.

Another of the study's key findings is that young South Africans are far more self-confident than their parents. "They've grown up in a free and fair society that was previously heavily suppressed," Simpson explains.

"Fifteen years ago, black kids especially were very different, confined to little worlds in townships and powerless over their lives. There has been an important loosening of shackles."

Born Frees are "me" oriented, with no memory of momentous events such as Nelson Mandela's release from prison or of life without the internet. On the tenth anniversary of democracy, rather worryingly, they consider politics to be a non-event.

"Twenty years ago, young people were at the vanguard of the struggle. That has changed and kids are saying you must look after yourself, that social issues are not important," Simpson says.

Still, Mandela tops the list of famous people who all categories of Born Frees would love to be like. As elsewhere, young South Africans are besotted with global celebrities such as David Beckham, Jennifer Lopez and Halle Berry.

Interestingly, mothers are also powerful role models for Have-not youngsters. Today 60 per cent of local children are born to single mothers, and a trend away from nuclear or extended families, along with an HIV-Aids epidemic that is breaking up families, will have profound social consequences, as yet unknown.

Also of concern are pressures on young people from crime and violence, urbanisation and westernisation. Simpson adds to this list "our melting pot of cultures, conspicuous consumption and the presence of very few constructive role models".

Born Frees tend to be techno-literate, and are accessing technology in ever-growing numbers. They are familiar with all types of media and value interactivity.

The study focused on children in South Africa's three big metropolitan areas - Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg - and medium to upper-income groups, because that is where the spending power is. There are likely to be big, and growing, differences between them and youngsters in very poor urban and rural areas.

The technology generation gap is also acute in South Africa, with many parents only recently introduced to electricity and appliances.

Technological prowess generates a strong feeling of empowerment among Born Frees, who love being able to do things that their parents cannot. "The empowerment of technology is more evident among the young than ever before," Simpson says, "especially among black youngsters who feel that it will help them to achieve."

Born Frees appear to be the most brand-crazy generation ever. By the age of 12, brands and labels - which are what township kids talk about - are the means to acceptance by peers and a route to self-confidence.

By 17, brands are being used to construct individual identities. One Born Free put it this way: "I went to a braai (barbecue) and there's this guy and he says, 'What is that walkie-talkie you got?" It was the previous year's model of a Nokia mobile phone.

Born Frees appear to be experiencing greater cultural fusion than youth in the US. For example, while Fubu - the urban streetwear brand created by young black New Yorkers - is popular among African-American youth, in South Africa all kids are into it.

Loxion Kulca is also a cross-race hit. It was founded by Nzimande and Sechaba "Chabi" Mogale, who started off as jobless school-leavers selling home-made skull caps that their friends thought trendy, in the streets of Soweto. They were both born in 1976, the year of the Soweto riots, which were kicked off by pupils protesting against the imposition of Afrikaans in schools and which launched the mass resistance movement in South Africa.

"We wanted to look a certain way but couldn't find the clothes so we started experimenting," says Nzimande, now . The friends went into partnership with a clothing manufacturer, who helped develop them into South Africa's biggest street-wear brand. Today they have a full fashion range, multi-labels and accessories that are sold in more than 150 outlets countrywide and in Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia.

Nzimande says: "It's about a lifestyle and the story it tells - if we can make it, anyone can. It's very difficult overseas to create a hit brand, but it is still possible here: there are lots of opportunities. We're showing kids that anything is possible."

Born Frees, Simpson adds, "pick up what is happening overseas, take what they like and mix it with what appeals to them locally. They absorb, blend and churn out what they want."

A gender sea-change is also under way. Despite a traditionally patriarchal society, Born Frees do not hold the view that society is male dominated, and girls have a "very strong self-belief". At Cape Town University, black women now outnumber black men.

Another major trend is the increasing use of English, thanks to growing access to the media. Simpson says: "It used to be that a black kid speaking strong English would have come from a formerly white school. Today, township kids are also learning to speak English very well. English is becoming the lingua franca, and it says 'we are all equal and OK'."

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