By Ron Allen, NBC News
The anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela has pretty much completely withdrawn from public life. His health is a matter of constant speculation, rumor and mostly worry. There have been a couple of scares in recent years. But on Wednesday, he celebrated his 94th birthday, in a country where life expectancy is just 52: the latest remarkable accomplishment in one of the most remarkable lives of our times.
The trip gave me a chance to explore a place I rarely visit. It’s long been one of my favorite countries to explore: inspiring, intriguing, and one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see.
South Africa's transformation
My first trip was almost 20 years ago, back in 1993. Apartheid was ending and soon segregation would no longer be mandated by law. I wanted to witness for myself what was left of such an incredible and notorious system of oppression. Mandela was about to complete the journey from prisoner to president. Fully democratic elections were about to happen. I’ll never forget that first morning when all South Africans were allowed to vote. The lines stretched for what seemed like miles into the morning haze. The “Rainbow Nation” was being born.
South Africa has come a very long way during the past couple of decades. But it certainly still has a long way to go. It is the largest economy in Africa, but not among the fastest growing on a continent talked about by economists as the next Asia, with many of the world’s top 10 fastest economies. About a third of South Africa’s 50 million people still live in poverty. Unemployment is about 25 percent, and double that for the black population, especially young people.
We were especially curious about the so-called “Born Free” generation. Young people born since the early 1990s and the end of apartheid. Those born since Mandela became president are now young adults. And they’re testing Mandela’s dream of equal opportunity for all against their own dreams.
“The world is my stage. I can express myself the way I want to and have no limits,” said Tiisetso Lepelle, 17, a student from Wordsworth High School. She and her classmates were visiting Constitution Hill, near Johannesburg: a museum, court, and cultural center located in what used to be a prison notorious for its treatment of political prisoners.
'It's about me, and what I want'
Constitution Hill tells the story of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. But the next chapter of that story is all about Tiisetso and her classmates' generation. Many of them have expectations and a sense of optimism their parents, or even their older siblings, never dreamed of.
We asked what matters most in her country. “It’s not about color. It’s about me, and what I want,” she said with confidence.
Over at Wits University in Johannesburg, we found a different take on things.
“I think there’s still a lot of racial tension,” said Alex Willis, an 18-year-old woman from a mixed race family. “I think that our children’s children, or our children’s children’s children might kind of get to see the day where that’s not an issue,” she added. Alex, who is Caucasian and Indian, told us she doesn’t see a lot of mixing of people of various backgrounds and she sometimes feels like the odd person out.
Interestingly, her 20-year-old white classmate Michael Jordan, who she’s dating, saw things differently.
"I think apartheid was terrible and I think we’re going to have the scars of those wounds for a long time," he speculated. "I think the majority of our attitude is, 'Let’s not dwell on the past because by doing that you can only stumble, you know, if you keep looking backward.'"
South Africa is still a complicated and evolving society where race plays an enduring role in who gets what. For the most part, black South Africans control the government while whites control the country’s wealth and business. It’s a stark divide that’s still so strikingly visible. Whites live in the suburbs lined with high walls protesting their homes. Blacks live with much less. But there’s a small emerging black middle class: we saw one bustling shopping mall in the township of Soweto that could have been a small urban center with a large minority community in the U.S.
And that’s what so many of the “Born Free” generation who we met aspired to, and more importantly expected, in their lives: success and self-determination. As they become adults and set out to make their mark on their country and the world, they’re determined not to let South Africa’s history hold them back.