Why South African boys have different dreams about the future

Why South African boys have different dreams about the future

“You see I am going to study. I want to become a famous lawyer and when I start earning money I am out of here [coloured neighbourhood]. I don’t want my children to grow up in a place like this. It is not healthy for children. I want to move to that side [points towards the city centre of Cape Town where the more affluent parts of the city are situated]. That’s my future… Then I’ll also have three cars and two houses because that was never possible here. And I’ll always treat my children and wife good. That’s how I want it.”

This is Wahid’s response to my question about his future plans, when I interviewed him in 2003 while doing fieldwork in Cape Town for my MA in anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. Wahid was 18-years-old at that time; he characterised himself as coloured, a political category used during apartheid to define a range of different people, who had in common that they did not fit the definition of being black or white. 

The stereotypical coloured male

Today’s stereotypical perception of the South African coloured male is similar to the conventional understanding of Moroccan men in the Netherlands: a coloured (or Moroccan) male body is associated with criminal behaviour (Lindegaard & Henriksen 2005). In Cape Town most criminals are referred to as ‘gangsters’. Wahid lives in an area, where about 70 percent of boys between the ages of 13 and 20 are involved in gangs. Gangs have well-defined territories; they fight over drugs, diamonds, girlfriends and honour and their power partly depends on their membership figure (Jensen 2000). Boys living in these areas are often forced to become gang members. In fact it takes a lot of talent, risk and effort to stay out of it. Wahid is one of the boys who meet this profile. He hides himself in books and schoolwork; he only leaves the house when it is absolutely necessary; and he respectfully greets the gangsters hanging on the street corners, but always keeps his distance. Wahid occupies a two-room apartment with his mother and twelve other family members. His mother owns a catering firm and is the only one earning an income in the house. Wahid’s father is absent in his life and was never mentioned during the time I got to know Wahid. 

Segregation: the change from race to class

Wahid attends Heideveld High, a school defined as coloured during apartheid. Today most ‘learners’ (South African for students) are still coloured, but black learners from the neighbouring residential area have also started to attend. They have in common that their parents can afford the school fees of a coloured school, which in general are a little higher than the fees at schools formerly defined as black. The more affluent black learners attending Heideveld High thus leave their black residential area on a daily basis to go to school. The same movement in space can be found among coloured learners whose parents can afford the fees of schools formerly defined as white. All of this illustrates that the South African school system is no longer segregated in terms of race, but rather in terms of economic resources. Housing prices follow the same trend: formerly white areas are the most expensive; house prices in coloured areas are in between and in black areas they are the lowest. When parents can afford it they send their children to better schools outside their residential area; when they become more affluent, they usually move out altogether. 

Another boy, Paul, who defines himself as coloured, lives in an area similar to Wahid’s but attends a school situated in a formerly white area. He describes his plans for the future in the following way:

“I’ll never leave Factreton [coloured neighbourhood]. I’m not one of those. This is where I have my friends and family. I know this place. I know the streets, the people. They are a part of me so why should I leave? I’ll go studying next year. I’m still not sure what but maybe spots or engineering. When I’m done with studying I’ll come back here and try to change this place. I want to make opportunities for everybody. I would also like to get children sometimes and also to get married but not now. I’m too young for that kind of shit.”

Paul, like Wahid, is 18-years-old. The area he lives in is heavily influenced by gangsterism and he is, in fact, a gang member himself – not of one of the big criminal gangs, but rather of “a group of boys, who like to hang out and be tough” as he puts it. Paul’s mother is a teacher at the local High School, providing her with the economical means to send Paul to a better school outside their residential area. She explains: “I wanted to make sure that he gets good education, to secure his future”. Paul attends Pinelands High where about 60 percent of the learners characterise themselves as coloured, 20 percent as black and 20 percent as white (Lindegaard & Henriksen 2004). When Paul leaves his residential area in the morning he wears a school uniform, which looks (and is) much more expensive than the ‘local’ uniforms in Factreton. He covers the uniform by a jacket to avoid being called ‘coconut’, a derogative designation for blacks, who try to live white lives; they are black on the outside but white on the inside. At Pinelands the uniform protects him against being perceived as a criminal. At school he speaks with a sophisticated British accent; at home he shifts into a mixture of Afrikaans, English and Xhosa. 

Two versions of the ‘new’ South Africa

Paul gets exposed to the ‘new’ South Africa on a daily basis. The ‘rainbow’ [1] version at school, where adolescents, who are different in terms of race, class and gender, interact. This version is not for free and certainly not accessible to boys like Wahid. The other version of the ‘new’ South Africa is one, to which people with little economic resources – and I here refer to the majority of the population – are exposed every day without any chance to escape. They live, work and attend school in areas previously referred to as black and coloured. They eat what they always did for dinner, they attend the same church or Mosque and they worry about the same things. One of the major differences in their lives is that cinemas, music halls and sport facilities are no longer situated in their residential areas; they are dependent on transport out of the area that costs money, which is scarce. During apartheid these facilities were accounted for through donations to the ‘underprivileged’; nowadays the lack of facilities in black and coloured areas is not perceived as a matter of deprivation, but rather as a matter of unsuccessful participation in the ‘free’ market of possibilities, which in the present political debate are framed as being equal to all (Hansen 2002). 

Leaving the residential area just to come back?

Then how are we supposed to understand Wahid’s wish to leave his residential area and Paul’s comment that he is not “one of those”? Wahid’s family relations, friends, school diploma, where he is doing his shopping and where he might meet his future wife all start with the area in which he lives. His everyday world is literally smaller than Paul’s, who has a sense of belonging to a bigger part of the city. Wahid’s plans for the future therefore also are more illusory than Paul’s. He wants cars, houses, stable family relations and celebrity, which are all things he will be unable to achieve in his present life. Getting out of the area is associated with accessing a part of the ‘new’ South Africa, which he does not know. To Paul that part is more familiar and he has experienced that leaving his coloured residential area is connected to feelings of insecurity and confusion about belonging. When he says, “I am not one of those” he also conveys a political message. He does not want to leave his friends and family behind just because he starts earning money. Paul’s ticket out of the area is already secure. For him leaving has the purpose of being able to return and create possibilities for the ones he left behind. For Wahid, managing to get out is an achievement in itself.

The future plans of Wahid and Paul, the way they move around the city, gives a small insight in young people’s experiences in the ‘new’ South Africa. The meaning they attach to space works as a lens to understand changing perceptions of race, class and gender. The social meaning of space is an interdisciplinary field, of interest to urban geographers and anthropologists among others. In terms of political and social categories Wahid and Paul seem similar. They live in similar areas; they both characterise themselves as coloured, and they have absent fathers. Is the only difference between them then that one can afford an expensive school and the other cannot? Is the difference just a matter of class and if so, what does class mean? 

Falling into the disgrace of being criminal

It is a lot easier for Wahid to fall into the disgrace of criminality or unemployment than for Paul. The only way he manages to avoid being a typical coloured male (gangster) is through his schoolwork; he has to work much harder than Paul, who is not particularly interested in school and can even be a gang member without risking to be perceived as a gangster. Wahid and Paul are, in other words, ‘differently positioned’ (Davies & Harre 1990); the stereotypical category for coloured males is more ‘closed’ for Wahid than for Paul in the sense that if Wahid makes one small ‘mistake’, such as talking to a gangster at the wrong moment, kissing the wrong girl or failing at school, he will easily be defined as a gangster type. Due to more supportive family relations, highly educated friends, a diploma from a famous school and a self-consciousness or political awareness developed by being exposed to differences, Paul on the other hand is much less vulnerable to being perceived as a typical coloured male. He can therefore afford to ‘misbehave’ without falling into the disgrace of the gangster. Wahid and Paul are therefore not only different in terms of economic resources; they are also different in terms of how available the ‘new’ South Africa is to them. The privileged youngsters in today’s South Africa are no longer necessarily white; they are rather characterised by their movement across borders, which were previously defined by race. Being exposed to differences, learning from them and enjoying them is the dream of the ‘rainbow’ nation; a dream, that only comes true for the few, but might help the majority in making plans for the future. 


[1] Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was the chairman of the South African truth and reconciliation commission, introduced the term ‘rainbow nation’, which was an attempt to create a national identity based on the idea that South Africans of all colours live together in peace, reconciliation and forgiveness (for a critical discussion see for instance T.A. Boerer 2004).

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