What Madiba’s Legacy Means To The Youth

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There is no doubt that Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest people who ever lived, and what he stood for during his lifetime still stands today. Most of us have never met him but his values inspire and unite us.
Ask any sound young person what Nelson Mandela stands for. I am strongly convinced that the first top five words to be mentioned will include freedom. It is a word many died fighting to experience, more so during Apartheid, which was a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early-1990s.

This Youth Month, I challenged myself by asking a set of questions that would help me understand if what Tata Nelson Mandela fought for is, indeed, alive. I asked what his legacy means to me and what it means to the youth.

A few minutes after, descriptions, phrases and words came rushing to my mind but only one word kept echoing: freedom. This might be because of something profound Madiba said at an event with various leaders in the Free State on the 17September 1994. He said, “Freedom should not be understood to mean leadership positions or even appointments to top positions. It must be understood as the transformation of the lives of ordinary people in the hostels and the ghettos; in the squatter camps; on the farms and in the mine compounds.

“It means the constant consultation between leaders and members of their organisations; it demands of us to be in constant touch with the people, to understand their needs, hopes and fears; and to work together with them to improve their conditions.”

Although Tata spoke these words before I was born, in fact, before 29,6% of the South African youth under the age of 15 years was born, the accuracy of his words today really amazes me. This is because many of us still relate freedom with top-level management positions, we are convinced that true freedom is only witnessed when one has a leadership role and that those in the lower-level positions are not free. We associate freedom with riches and positions.

One is tempted to ask why would a man who is the first black President of South Africa, the first black person to hold the highest leadership role at that time, say freedom is not associated with positions? My belief is that a man who has been enslaved, chained and locked up in a small room with nothing but his bed and toilet for more than 27 years has more to share about freedom than any person who has nothing but a perception of what freedom is. When his movie “Long Walk to Freedom” came out, I was very eager to watch it. Part of the reason was to validate some of the freedom hypotheses I had about him. During the movie, one such hypothesis is confirmed when Idris Elba, acting as Mandela, says, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” This confirmed that, indeed, freedom is not only about one’s self, it’s about others.

But perhaps our generation’s freedom doesn’t have to do with others, positions or leadership roles. Our freedom has everything to do with technology, more specifically, social media. According to a 2017 report titled, “The Digital Landscape in South Africa” by Qwerty Digital, 15 million users in South Africa make use of social media platforms, with a 27% penetration rate of our total population. Thirteen million users do so purely from mobile phones, with a 24% penetration rate.

This increased from January 2016, with an additional two million (15%) new active social media users, and three million (30%) new active social users on mobile and, yes, you guessed it, the majority are young people. Freedom means the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved, so if I am failing to live without my phone, am I not in prison? This question really scared me, so I challenged myself to wake up without checking nor looking at my phone. The plan was to do so for an entire month while questioning why I feel the need to wake up with an electronic reproduction of life in my hand.

Although I failed to last even a week, I did, at least to some extent, find one of the main reasons why I am chained to this hobby (or is it a sickness?)—popularity. Not the 500 000 likes on my Instagram account or the 1 000 Facebook post likes per minute but the condition of being liked, admired or supported for what I do, what I stand for and for the brand I grow. Isn’t this what we all want, is this not the reason we are triggered by the notification that pops up on our phones more than 50 times per day on average?

Perhaps this little experiment confirmed that, indeed, I am not as free as I thought. I am enslaved by my devices, I am in a digital prison with no window to view the outside world and no hope of ever being free—the one thing Tata Nelson Mandela fought for. It’s important to note that having a device doesn’t automatically enslave us young people, what chains us is the amount of time we spend on these devices. In the United States, a 2015 report titled “Trends in Consumer Mobility”, which was conducted by the Bank of America, showed that approximately three-quarters (71%) of the research respondents are sleeping with—or next to—their mobile phones.

Today, younger Millennials (aged 18-24) are most likely to sleep with their smartphones on the bed (34%), they barely go to the library, with short attention spans, they read less than ever before and have many digital friends but engage less in person with their communities. Not a big deal? Well, how about the fact that, on average, an adult spends approximately two hours and 51 minutes on their smartphone every single day? Multiplied by 365, they spend close to 1 000 hours per year on their smartphones—this is 38 days spent on a cell phone every single year, demonstrating the fact that the youth are not the only ones with this hobby or, rather, illness.

The world is going digital, so perhaps spending this amount of time online is not a bad thing. With all the free books, educational podcasts, mind-stretching TED talks and so many resources available to the youth, perhaps Nelson Mandela’s second dream of enabling free education will finally be realised.

I, too, wish that that was true. The reality is that the more information we are given, the less we use, or we don’t use it at all. BBC Technology Correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, wrote about how our smartphones might actually be making us less intelligent. His argument is backed up by a study by the University of Waterloo in Ontario on how smartphones are making it easier for us to avoid thinking for ourselves. In 2015, researchers found that smartphone users who are intuitive thinkers (meaning they are more likely to rely on gut feelings and instincts when making a decision) would frequently make use of their phone’s search engine to find a solution rather than their own brainpower.

According to the study’s Co-lead Author, Gordon Pennycook, this means people “may look up information that they actually know or could easily learn, but are unwilling to make the effort to actually think about it”.

Are we free or are we dumb? The question of smartphones imprisoning the youth and making us dumb concerns even the creators of social media. Microsoft founder, Bill Gates’ kids weren’t allowed phones until they were 14, Apple founder, Steve Jobs, famously didn’t give his own children iPads. Not so long ago, Facebook’s first President, Sean Parker, made headlines when he publicly condemned the very platform he had helped to create when he said it probably interferes with productivity in weird ways and only God knows what it does to our children’s brains.

As a young person, I, too, believe that sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. We can be that generation. As we celebrate Mandela’s 100-year birthday anniversary, let us remember that his legacy means a lot of things to a lot of people but one thing we can all agree on is that being free is a battle and we, the 20th-century youth, are fighting our battle for our own type of freedom.