“Twelve years ago, I started working on a story about youth in South Africa, photographing the generation growing up after apartheid and the 'Born Free' project documents about 30 such young South Africans.
The couple in this image are Zakithi and Wilmarie, who were both born around the time Nelson Mandela became president and apartheid ended. They didn’t grow up during apartheid, but of course the division of racial lines within South Africa didn't end just because it ended on paper. Racism, just like in any other country in the world, still exists.
Whilst working with a guy called Kevin, shooting in his apartment, I told him that I was looking for a ‘mixed’ couple and how difficult this had been to find, as it's not very common to see such couples walking in the streets holding hands. It's more hidden. Kevin simply told me to open the door right next to me. I didn’t know he had a roommate, but I knocked on the door and was invited to come in. There they were: Zakithi and Wilmarie.
I will never forget our first meeting. So, there I was with my two cameras in hand, wondering why they had invited me in, as they sat half-dressed on Wilmarie’s bed.
For the months that passed, I followed this beautiful couple and to this day I'm still in contact with them. When we met, they had only been dating for three months, after meeting on Tinder, and were very much in love. They were kissing the whole time. Now, I think I have about 2000 pictures of them kissing in different places.
During our time together, we often talked about race and racism in South Africa and what it had been like for them. At the time, they were living in Johannesburg, where the race issue is not as big as in other parts of the country. Here, they were holding hands whilst walking down the streets and people would usually not comment. This image of them in the car, for me, was quite the perfect picture. That night, they were walking around, having drinks, dancing and kissing in the street. I have images of this as well, but the fact that they are they're sitting in the car shows that although they are happy and open and comfortable, that’s maybe not the same for everyone. For them, colour doesn't matter, black and white – we are the same. But after they moved to Cape Town, they noticed they would get more comments: ‘Why aren't you dating a girl of your own colour?’, ‘Can't you find a boy of your own colour?’, ‘Why are you stealing our black men?’
For us, it might feel a little bit like a step back into time, but for South Africa it's still a big leap into the future. At the end of apartheid, everybody was so optimistic – Nelson Mandela was such a bright man and people were inspired by him. Most people thought: ‘Okay, this rainbow nation is going to work. We're going to make it’. But cracks in the dream started appearing. And of course, the racial division, where you had separate beaches, schools, bars and universities – separate everything – that, of course, ended on paper. But a whole generation that had grown up in that era hadn't forgotten. So, although their kids were born into freedom, the parents still had division in their minds.
While working with the ‘Born Free’ generation, I noticed that a lot of kids didn't know that much about apartheid because their parents didn’t talk about it that much. Perhaps they were too traumatized or felt shame? I interviewed 30 young people and was surprised at the number that didn't know what was going on.
People often ask me: ‘How do you see the future of South Africa? Where is it going?’ The youth unemployment rate is estimated at about 50%, which is huge and very depressing. There were times in the past 12 years where I felt like South Africa is heading into a dark place, almost going down the drain, but then you bump into these amazing people who look beyond the colour boundaries and have fallen madly in love with each other. So, this picture – to me – shows hope. It leaves a smile on your face. I really hope that South Africa is heading in this hopeful direction where colour doesn't matter.
I learned so much from working on this project about race, racism and South Africa, and it really changed me. It has made me wiser about the world and made me realise how privileged I am. I know that inequality in the world is much bigger than I thought before I worked on this project and the fact that I can work on a story like this and have access to different parts of the world – it's something I don't take lightly at all. When you do a project like this, you always hope that it can change something in the perception of people. The race debate all around the world is still going strong, and sometimes I wonder if little me can make an impact. We all want the same things: love and respect, food and a house to live in. So, I hope this helps people see that we're all the same and it doesn't matter what colour you are. It's a story about what makes us human.”
Canon Ambassador Ilvy Njiokiktjien’s ‘Born Free’ project and book (a limited edition of 1994, in honour of the year that Mandela became president) can be found on her website. Her short film ‘Born Free – Mandela’s generation of hope’ can be seen on YouTube.