21 at 21 : The Coming of Age of a Nation – Melanie Verwoerd & Sonwabiso Ngcowa



It has been 21 years since the dawn of democracy in South Africa. To mark the “coming of age” of the nation, Melanie Verwoerd and Sonwabiso Ngcowa travelled across South Africa collecting the life stories of people born in 1994. These “born frees” relate their personal journeys, dreams and hopes for the future of the country. The brutally honest voices of these 21-year-olds, challenging and disturbing, as well as funny and hopeful, give an invaluable insight into modern day South Africa. “A remarkable insight … It will leave no one untouched” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The book should be required reading for all South Africans and should be part of the high school curriculum to show our school kids that we are all human, regardless of colour and economic status.
I could devote a review to each of the stories, but will highlight a few to show the diversity of our country’s young people. The stories range from the heroic (child-headed households) to the heartbreaking, from incredible hardship to the hopeful with bright eyes on the future.
“I am Xhosa First” says Siviwe Njamela, and goes on to talk about the importance of traditional tribal initiation in black culture, a topic that many South Africans know little about and have no grasp of the cultural importance to the majority of our population.
By way of complete contrast is the chapter on Joost Strydom, titled Growing up in Afrikaner Paradise . He was brought up in the ultra-nationalist  Afrikaner enclave of Orania, and emerged as a stable, well-rounded, bright young man and not a howling racist as many might suppose. Our complex society is full of surprises and contradictions.
“Get me to 21” girl Jenna Lowe, died from pulmonary arterial hypertension. When interviewed for the book, she just wanted “to get to 21”. She passed away on Monday the 8th of June, just four months shy of her 21st birthday that she so desperately wanted to make. During her short life she became South Africa’s voice for organ donation with her campaign Get Me To 21.


And then there’s the vexed question of cultural and racial identity – still a big issue in South Africa, 21 years on into the New South Africa. The chapter on Ishmael Evans The Intricacy of belonging. He was born in Australia to ‘a *coloured guy from Uitenhage’ (his own words) and a mother born in Liverpool England. Because of growing Islamophobia in Australia, the family moved back to SA in 2010. Ishmael sounds and looks like an Australian, but is a devout Muslim . A good cricketer, he wants to play cricket at national level. He appears white, but thinks of himself as a coloured .
“I want to be a good dad one day” said Marcellino Fillies. That’s his ambition: to live a productive life and have a family. So many of the stories reflect a very South African problem, that of the absentee fathers. Which in turn lead to developmental problems, and lack of role models.
I could go on and on. If you live in South Africa: read this book!
If you live outside our borders and want to know more about us, read this book!
a *coloured guy – racially mixed parentage, often white & black.

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