Malaika Mahlatsi12 February 2024 | 8:20

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: I am democracy’s child - I am Tintswalo

While President Cyril Ramaphosa might have economised with the truth in some of his statements in the State of the Nation Address, on Tintswalo, he told the story of millions of Black people. Many of us, in many ways, are Tintswalo, writes Malaika Mahlatsi.

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: I am democracy’s child - I am Tintswalo

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his State of the Nation Address to the Joint Sitting of Parliament at the Cape Town City Hall on 8 February 2024. Picture: @ParliamentofRSA/X

On the 8th of February, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the last State of the Nation Address (SONA) of the current administration.

While it did not deviate from the self-aggrandisement that characterises all SONAs, and was laced with some half-truths about the real state of South Africa, this particular address will be remembered for the raw nerve it struck with the analogy of Tintswalo – democracy’s child.

President Ramaphosa painted a profound picture of a young person by the name of Tintswalo, who was born at the dawn of democracy, and who, throughout her life, has been a beneficiary of pro-poor policies of the democratic government under the African National Congress (ANC).

Tintswalo’s mother received public healthcare and state housing. As an indigent, she also received free water and electricity. Tintswalo herself received a social grant, attended no-fee schools, and obtained a post-matric qualification through a National Student Aid Financial Scheme (NSFAS) bursary. She was able to get employment due to Affirmative Action policies, and lives in a constitutional democracy where her human rights are protected.

The story of Tintswalo is a story of the policies that have been championed by the ANC since the dawn of democracy, in an attempt to redress injustices of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past. And while Ramaphosa might have economised with the truth in some of his statements in the SONA, on Tintswalo, he told the story of millions of Black people.

Many of us, in many ways, are Tintswalo.

I too am a child of the 1990s, born in the township of Soweto to an indigent family whose life would be permanently altered by the policies of the ANC-led government. In 1994, my grandmother obtained an identity document and voted for the first time in her life. To understand the profundity of this, one must understand that my grandmother had been born in what is now the Free State province decades before, but would not be a South African until the dawn of democracy.

Like millions of other Black people, my grandmother was stateless for most of her life because, under apartheid, Black people were citizens of Bantustans – underdeveloped, ethnically determined enclaves that served as a labour reserve for South Africa, a White man’s country.

The under-development of Bantustans meant that there were barely any social amenities. And so, life there was unbearable. This would lead to my grandmother migrating to Johannesburg, where urban poverty and apartheid violence would define her life.

My grandmother’s life was not less gruelling in the new dispensation, for she continued to toil in the homes of White families – the only job she could do as an unskilled and illiterate Black woman, a condition designed by the immoral and inhuman apartheid regime. But citizenship ensured that I, her grandchild, would have better opportunities than both she and my mother had ever had.

And while I too would live through many years of abject poverty, being born and raised in a one-roomed shack that was shared with my entire family in Meadowlands, my fate would be much better than that of my mom, who was never able to go to university, and would die poor at age 45.

I am democracy’s child. Because of desegregation following the end of apartheid, I was able to access multi-racial schools that laid a foundation for my success story. Unlike my grandmother and my mother, I have never gone to bed hungry because when my mother had absolutely nothing to feed me, she would go to receive a loaf of bread and two litres of milk from a collection point in Meadowlands.

I attended good public schools despite being unable to afford the fees because in the new democracy, no child could be denied basic education on account of her parents’ inability to pay fees.

And because of this education, I would go on to obtain several degrees from higher learning institutions such as Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg (formerly Rand Afrikaans University), where in a different time and space, people like me could never be enrolled.

This higher education, for which I never had to pay a cent because I have been a beneficiary of numerous bursaries from democratic institutions such as the Gauteng City Regional Academy, Bokamoso Barona Trust, and individuals who, having benefitted from the gains of democracy, paid it forward by investing in me, has lifted my family out of poverty. I was able to find employment in government immediately after completing my Honours degree at Rhodes University.

Being the first graduate in my family made it possible for me to educate my siblings, build a home for my family, and ensure that my grandmother could finally retire from being a domestic worker.

And now, while I pursue my doctoral studies in Germany, I do not have to worry that on the difficult months when I cannot send money home, my granny will starve. This is because she receives a pension from the government, and receives her medication from the local clinic.

The City of Johannesburg municipality has also permitted her to use a patch of land behind our house for subsistence farming. She grows her own vegetables and herbs. It not only ensures her food security, but also keeps her healthy. A child of apartheid, she now leads a quality life in a democracy. 

South Africa is far from being a stable and equitable society. There are still many things in our country that need to be fixed.

The quadruple challenge of inequality, poverty, unemployment, and crime continues to tear our country asunder. The legacy of colonialism and apartheid, as well as the maladministration that has defined the post-apartheid dispensation, have converged to make progress painfully slow. For many, life continues to be extremely difficult.

But it would be dishonest to disregard the strides that have been made to improve the lives of millions of our people.

Revisionists would even want to claim that life was better under apartheid. But it was not - at least not for the native majority. Democracy has made it possible for millions of us to exist in a world that is far better than the one in which my grandmother existed. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not without its frustrations. But because of it, because of the ANC-led government, we have a fighting chance.

Because I am Tintswalo, I have something to live for. And no matter what I may think of the failures of my government, I am thankful for the foundation it laid for me to be where I am today – and to take my family with me.

Malaika is a geographer and researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.