A young black man sits beside UP’s own Dr Sithembile Mbete at Exclusive Books in Brooklyn Mall. His name is Phumlani Pikoli, he’s a Pretoria native and a multidisciplinary artist whose latest offering takes a look at South Africa’s young ‘born free’ generation. Dr Mbete is chairing a discussion with the author on his latest book, giving the small audience a unique insight into the thoughts and discourse that went into preparing his latest book, Born Freeloaders. At the end of the evening he scrawls a note onto the front page of my copy of the book, he says “I hope this book doesn’t bore you to death!” The reality of this book is that it couldn’t be boring if it tried, the pages are filled with philosophical musings and important questions about race, identity, and the meaning of being born free.
The novel is centred on two siblings, Xolani and Nthabiseng, and spans over one weekend in the nation’s capital city. The siblings belong to an upper-class family and their parents have strong connections to the country’s political elite. Each of the siblings’ grapple with issues that are familiar to a wide variety of readers; there are the typical adolescent issues of romance and sex, as well as more complex issues of race and identity. Many readers will be able to relate to the protagonists as they struggle toward finding approval and acceptance within themselves, and from those around them.
“The reality of this book is that it couldn’t be boring if it tried…“
Pikoli crafts the siblings to be strong in their own ways but each is facing an internal struggle which colours the way they speak and act. Nthabiseng is a strong-willed and sharp-tongued young woman with a fiery disposition. As she is a social butterfly, she has a wide circle of friends spanning all walks of life. On the inside, Nthabiseng battles issues surrounding her own identity as a biracial woman who is part of the born-free generation. Pikoli approaches the question of “black or white” with grace and eloquence having one of the characters explain “it’s not a trick question, it’s an honest one … the idea of blackness is a political category and not a fixed identity as purported by the social fiction we’re forced to be characters in”. This sentiment is echoed throughout the book as Pikoli deals with the thematic truth that members of the born free generation are expected to play certain social and racial roles, dictated by those who fought for their freedom. Xolani represents anyone who has ever sought approval from someone else, for him it is his uncle; the closest person he has ever known to his biological father.
Throughout the weekend during which the novel takes place, the siblings confront these internal conflicts within themselves as well as in social contexts where the people around them weigh in on these conflicts with their own experiences and contexts. The weekend sees the siblings, their parents, their parents’ political connections, as well as a number of the sibling’s friends in various interactions and social settings. The book encompasses a weekend in Pretoria, portraying the capital city as a vibrant epicentre for social interconnection between people of all walks of life. The novel deals with relevant and familiar issues and feels like an immersive experience to the reader, placing them in the weekend’s events. The familiarity of the book’s environmental setting is heightened by pop culture references (with nods to Harry Potter and Game of Thrones) and slang used by the young people of our country.
Phumlani Pikoli crafts real, human characters who wrestle with familiar problems and issues, in a way that that is relatable to the vast of majority of young South Africans; those who almost daily grapple with the realities and expectations of being “born free”. We may have been born free of the legal technicalities of the apartheid era, but the label of born free comes with its own identity crises and challenges to overcome, and pieces of this narrative are woven through Born Freeloaders.