28 November 2019

Mandela’s Human Legacy. Documenting the Everyday Lives of Young South Africans.

28 November 2019 - Written by Laurence Cornet

25 years since Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s president, Ilvy Njiokiktjien follows the “born free” generation and provides an overview of how the country, across every layer of society, is doing after two decades of democracy.

© Ilvy Njiokiktjien, from the series The Born Free Generation. Students of Tom Naud High School in Polokwane, walking from one classroom to the other in between classes.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, bringing with him the hope of turning the segregated country into a Rainbow Nation, where color doesn’t determine social status. On Youth Day, a few months after he took office, he declared, “This generation of youth stands at the borderline between the past of oppression and repression, and the future of prosperity, peace and harmony. […] In your hands is the key to make South Africa a great country; to make our society a prosperous and caring nation”.

“The youth in South Africa are very involved in their country. They are protesting for better housing, better education, or against corruption”, photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien explains. For the past 12 years, she has turned her lens towards the born free – the generation born after the end of the Apartheid - willing to assess Mandela’s heritage a quarter of a century after his election. “Apartheid ended on paper but not in people’s mind, especially in smaller towns”, she notes. In most of the schools she visited over these years, most people were not actually mixing. In one of her photographs, a young black swimmer stands alone among the white kids, wrapped up in his towel as if metaphorically hiding while the rest of his team exhibit their bare chests.

© Ilvy Njiokiktjien, from the series The Born Free Generation. The swim team of Michaelhouse boarding school during a swimming match at Hilton College in Hilton, South Africa.

“We talk a lot about modern-day racism, but what you see happening in schools is actually that children are not learning from their different cultural backgrounds”, Njiokiktjien notes. “Black people were moved outside of city centres during the 1960s and still live there - that’s a major difference that still remains.” Living in townships often means living in tin houses and spending a third of one’s salary to go to work every morning.

“At first, the people whom I asked to collaborate on my project were not really interested, wondering what the story was about. Only after a while did they realise that they have a lot to say about the division between rich and poor, black and white, and how it affects their life.” The range of people she spent time with is striking, from young white Afrikaner teenagers teaching self-defence and how to combat a perceived black enemy, to a black self-made millionaire teaching the youth how to make money.

© Ilvy Njiokiktjien, from the series The Born Free Generation. The South African National Youth Orchestra walk away after they have performed on the beach in South Africa.

In a video documentary Njiokiktjien did, the young millionaire says, “I think our born free generation is more focused on taking South Africa out of the poverty zone than on who is white and who is black”.

“The youth unemployment rate is estimated to 53%”, Njiokiktjien comments. So much so that, as a young girl she followed, Nonjabulo Ndzanibe, some young people have to sell their body to survive, trapped by South Africa’s rampant poverty. “I really feel that the country is at a tipping point; it will either go very well from now on or very bad”, Njiokiktjien concludes, adding that though she just published her work as a book, she will keep following the youths she spent a decade with.


Book Info:

Born Free - Mandela’s Generation of Hope by Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Photographs by Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Print run of 1994 copies, signed and numbered.

The book is printed on magazine paper, hand-folded like a newspaper and hand-glued into a hardcover bind // €39,50



Ilvy Njiokiktjien is an independent photographer and multimedia journalist based in the Netherlands. She is a Canon Ambassador and represented by VII Photo Agency. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.


This article is part of our feature series Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

5 minutes

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