Born free? We wish!

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Malaika wa Azania, 22, launched her ironically-titled autobiography, Memoirs of a Born Free, in May this year. In telling her story, the Rhodes second-year geography student rejected the label “Born Free”, often optimistically used to describe children born post-1994 to supposed opportunity. Several artists from around the country are engaging this potentially controversial label at Festival this year.

Controversial? According to Wa Azania, material conditions for most young black people do not accord with freedom and so the struggle for socio-economic liberation continues. For her, the label Born Free should be abandoned until it is a lived reality.

“I believe that one day there will be black Born Frees, but that day is not today and it was certainly not in 1994,” she told Cue.

Wa Azania expressed concern that young directors drawing on the concept at Festival might reinforce a dominant narrative – one about unity and emancipation among young people – that she feels is misleading. If they are to avoid this pitfall, the challenge is two-fold: to create work that connects to broader political issues and to reflect the actual stories of the generation that has just come to majority.

Among the plays that address this topic is Mike van Graan’s Born Free!, a stand-up comedy written for comedian Siv Ngesi which sadly did not make it to the stage. According to Van Graan, the show would have subverted the category by satirising popular acronyms such as BFF (Born Free and Fucked) during an AA (After Apartheid) support group meeting (hosted via Mxit).

Speaking to his reason for employing the category, Van Graan said, “I suppose it’s because in a way their lives mirror those of the nation.” However, it seems his approach to the term’s validity is very different to Wa Azania’s. “It’s a non-issue for me; it’s simply a descriptive label of people who were born at a particular time and whether they were actually born free or not, for me, is moot,” Van Graan said.

Artists and directors who were themselves born in the new dispensation apparently see things differently. Masters students Gavin Matthys and Katlego Chale from the Tshwane University of Technology are debuting Born Free Odyssey, a production with a purpose: questioning what it means to be Born Free by creating something that speaks to young people, from young people.

Developed in workshops that drew from their cast’s personal experiences, the story employs epilepsy – a disorder that causes disconnection – as an interesting representation of sickness in society. This speaks to the ongoing but under-acknowledged healing process through which Born Frees must find where they fit. “They are fighting to be heard, to have their voice. But what that voice is saying is not yet clear,” Chale explained.

Their work explores issues of extreme poverty and frustrated aspiration, focusing on the lack of influence that those who have been forgotten in our unfolding transition experience. Though in some senses the play is a little untidy, a certain grit reveals these are matters the performers genuinely care about.

Being Born Free is also significant for Blah Ze Blah, a Grahamstown-based creative collective that is hosting live music sessions throughout Festival. The group describes itself as “A fusion of street culture, music and graphics from the eyes of the Born Free generation.”

Through their work they try to give substance to a currently empty category. Co-founder Sinethemba Konzaphi resorted to slam poetry in explaining this, spontaneously sharing his own line “I’m brushing shoulders with these Born Frees…wearing this proudly South African tag they utilise to unite a post-disorder dynasty only for higher class minorities.”

For Blah Ze Blah, offering a platform to local talent hopefully makes Born Free mean something. “The reason why we’re focusing on this particular section is because we understand the significance of that generation,” Konzaphi said. “We actually have to get our hands dirty to make that happen.”

Exploring what it means to be Born Free – to be an emissary of an idea not your own – at Festival might be a start. “The fact that young people are beginning to think about these issues indicates that the dialogue is starting,” Wa Azania said.

– By Kyla Hazell, Cue