Political xennial

Nelson Mandela Book

I was born in a borderland; a strange pocket of time that obscured context like a great celestial body eclipsing the luminescence of the all-seeing moon. In 1982 that Groot Krokodil guy was on the screen wagging his finger at my mom and dad whilst I grovelled in the sand, staring across the dead veld to the mine dumps infiltrating the flat horizon of the Germiston landscape, the orange sunset forcing my eyes to squint until the sky was a blur.

In 2014 Sarah Stankorb wrote an article for Good magazine, describing a misfit group who did not quite fit into either the Gen X or the Millennial group, in temperament and attitude—a micro pocket of people born in the late 70s/early 80s that Stankorb coined “Xennials”. Xennials are the first generation to have household computers and internet access (remember that dial-up sound?); we got our first cell-phones when we were in our twenties and spent our teen years calling our friends house and having a conversation with their parents before we got to talk junk with our pals with a phone that had a wire attached to a socket in the wall. Maybe you were lucky and had a portable phone—and could hide under your bed with your boyfriend on the other end of the line. We grew up with Walkmans, cassette tapes, VHS and video machines but transitioned easily (if somewhat stubbornly—some of us) into the new digital age. Xennials remember a time when Facebook wasn’t around and computers were elusive and exciting. We’re supposedly not as cynical as your regular Gen Xer but are also not as optimistic as Millennials.

How does this whole inbetweener vibe play out for the 1982-kids about to be hit by the great forty monster? Well, Xennials might have a love/hate relationship with social media (because it hails from the toilet and can usurp all brain power like in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers but also…FOMO) and a tendency to vacillate between a cost-effective Kindle and an irrational love for an overpriced hardback, and, in spare moments, a Xennial could easily be found daydreaming in the depths of nostalgia, back to a time when where children played with the neighbours, read books and “iPads” were cucumber-infused cotton balls. Something like that. The paradoxes will manifest differently for everyone and will have a variety of extracurricular influences. For example, Nelson Mandela and Kurt Cobain.

You’re panicking, I know.

Am I a racist? And did I really grow up in the nineties? No and Yes. In that order. But seriously, I’ve not understood the hype. I mean, Nirvana…hmmm—really? And Madiba? In fact, this very morning I read a New York Times headline (NEW.YORK.TIMES, people): Jacob Zuma of South Africa is Granted Medical Parole. Damn. It’s like the dog that ate the kid’s homework. This is Nelson Mandela’s legacy—the saviour who sold out? I just can’t decide? It’s that borderland paradox that can all too easily lay claim to the psyche of the white, privileged South African who grew up in the nineties with 5 seconds of apartheid and a much longer version of its aftermath (the New South Africa)—drenched in blood; a history of violence unconquered. Can you hear it…

…the growling?

The hell hounds of woke coming to tear me apart so I am going to be try and be


Smells Like Teen Spirit came out in 1991. I was 9. It played over the loud speaker at fetes and events and I knew it was cool and that my mom probably wouldn’t like it so I should not sing the words out loud. Then it was 1994. Kurt Cobain took his life a month before Nelson Mandela started his presidency. I was 12—on the cusp of knowing things but also not really knowing anything. Like, what grunge was…what it really was. And what apartheid was…what it really was. Both men were counter cultural in their own right but each countered a culture that, in the moment of relevance, eluded me. The great context eclipse of 1982.

Nirvana was an easy puzzle: art doesn’t have to be “good” (if there is such an objective quantification) to impact the world, or be loved. Nirvana was an extension of the existential scream emanating from Kurt Cobain, which may have sounded a bit, I dunno, Whiney?…Samey? Whatevs—Nirvana served its dirty soul on a platter and we all knew it was okay to be human. Also, it’s not “it’s a night owl” but “a denial”—who knew.

Madiba? Well, that’s a bit more complicated.

Being South African is messy.

I remember the day that black children joined our school in Johannesburg. There was a buzz on the playground; we couldn’t wait to welcome our new classmates. I was in Standard 2 (or 3), so 1991 (or ‘92), and whilst black faces were by no means unfamiliar, black friends—now this was new. Irene, Palesa and Jabulile (Jabu’ for short) joined our year group at Leicester Road Primary in Kensington; there were some others but these three girls also morphed along into high school with me, so I knew them.  Knew them—as in chatted, shared laughs, blabbed about school but I didn’t really know what their lives were like; what they did before they were allowed to come to school in a mostly white suburb or what it was like to catch a taxi every day and how they managed to do all their lessons in English, a second, maybe third or fourth language. Mainly because it never occurred to me just how different their lives had been, and still were, to my own; I mean Irene, Palesa and Jabu’ looked different to me, obviously, but they were just kids, like me. And that’s the lens though which I saw them—as kids like me; black kids, yes…but kids. And life carried on in happy oblivion whilst apartheid drew to an end.

The gravitas of life never quite hits you in childhood; when you’re living by moment, revelling in the minutes that are stitching together your part in history—your story. The other threads in the tapestry are almost inconsequential. And that’s exactly why childhood is so magical; so precious—its fleetingness and fragility.

And then we grow up.

Mandela shook Francois Pienaar’s hand and the rainbow nation was born.

Madiba and his new government would right the wrongs of the past, with equality, housing, jobs, compensation and freedom, finally! My political consciousness (and I mean this in the loosest sense of the word) was born in the late nineties and was strongly influenced by what I saw happening around me in the moment: and that was a strange sort of freedom that was tempered by the oppression of violence, poverty—the legacy of apartheid, as I understood it. It takes time to fix such vast injustice; to overhaul a system…to educate, to reform, to replenish. To build the esteem of a people who have been treated like flies worth no more than the shit they eat, for decades. Now, fix that. It’s literally mind bending. But Mandela and his government were going to do it.

The nineties morphed into the noughties…the ANC smashed the vote and crime and corruption escalated.

It felt very much like the rise and fall of that very fragile rainbow.

Where was the long-term plan to pull South Africa out of the abyss of power misuse and abuse, social injustice and dire poverty? What would Nelson Mandela say about South Africa today? I want to know. And I want to know why I should love him, as the world and my country say I should. I want something more than logic; I want to feel the pain of oppression for those in South Africa who have been oppressed, without the baggage of post-’95 government directed rage. So I quickly read John Carlin’s Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that made a Nation (because if there’s any way into my equivocal Xennial heart, it’s through the Springboks—even Madiba knew it) and then smashed my way through Long Walk To Freedom, eating up the ideology of the struggle; the logic of communist alliances and violence as a means of protest—desperate to separate the man from the myth. And something beautiful emerged…

A man I liked. And not because someone told me to.

A man who loved his home, his family and his people. A man who knew what he believed and would die for it. An intelligent man, who embodied perseverance and ingenuity; who respected the resilience of his enemy as much as he hated the outworking of that resilience. A man of grace, kindness and great empathy. There are so many hard things, beautiful things, proud things that make up Madiba’s story but this is the part…

I packed the few things that I possessed and early one morning we set out on a journey westward to my new residence. I mourned less for my father than for the world I was leaving behind. Qunu was all that I knew, and I loved it in the unconditional way that a child loves his first home. Before we disappeared behind the hills, I turned and looked for what I imagined was the last time at my village. I could see the simple huts and the people going about their chores; the stream where I had splashed and played with the other boys: the maize fields and green pastures where the herds and flocks were lazily grazing. I imagined my friends out hunting for small birds, drinking the sweet milk from the cow’s udder, cavorting in the pond at the end of the stream. Above all else, my eyes rested on the three simple huts where I had enjoyed my mother’s love and protection. it was these three huts that I associated with all my happiness, with life itself, and I rued the fact that I had not kissed each of them before I left. I could not imagine that the future I was walking towards could compare in any way with the past that I was leaving behind.

…that set it right, for me.


South Africa.

An unconditional love.

This passage is the heart of every South African, expat or local, because we all long for healing, for peace…for freedom—and we’re still walking. I’m still walking.


Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin

Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. The stories she tells are to preserve the legacy of a country her children might never truly know. Memory is fragile and the South Africa of Andrea’s stories is not everyone’s South Africabut it is hers, and that is precious. She hopes that, even if your version is different, you will be inspired to share your stories about the beautiful, messy, tragic country we call home, no matter where you are. 

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