by Ilvy Njiokiktjien

This interactive long-read is best experienced with sound.
Duration is approximately 20 minutes.

Born Free

Living with the legacy of inequality

Forty-six years.

That's how long racial segregation was official policy in South Africa. Apartheid ended in 1994, when the country elected Nelson Mandela as its first black president. A new constitution gave all South Africans equal rights, but Mandela knew the wounds left by apartheid would live on into the 21st century. To speed their healing, he focused his presidency on reconciliation and hope for the future.

Twenty-five years have since passed. The children born right after apartheid ended are now young adults: the born-free generation for whom racial segregation is – at least officially – a thing of the past. It falls to these young South Africans to make Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation come true.


Running Away

Nonjabulo Ndzanibe's father went to prison when she was only nine years old. Her mother refused to talk about it, and over the years Nonjabolu's bond with her broke down. The rift eventually grew so large that Nonjabulo fled the household. Two years later, it's still painfully hard for her to talk about.

The 21-year-old looks to her right, searching for words. At last she finds them. “I decided to run away from home because I felt desperate," she begins, in a soft voice that reflects her Zulu descent. "So I went to the big city, to Durban.”

Lower Marine Parade Street runs north-south along the Indian Ocean in this city with half a million residents on the southern tip of the African continent. On any given day the Parade is buzzing with families who stroll along the tiled path lined with palm trees. Surfers scout out the best waves, food stall vendors sell snacks and ice cream, kids build castles in the sand. It's the lazy, pounding artery of South Africa’s holiday capital, and it is here Nonjabolu spends her time, two years after she ran away.

She doesn't remember what she did in her first days in Durban. It was a friend, Amahle, who told her to come to the big city, because life was supposedly better there than in her hometown. As it turned out, Amahle's sister, the person she would be staying with, was a prostitute.

Chapter 1

The Black Tax

While equality is there on paper, most South Africans feel that whites have a leg up on success. Like all people, born-frees who make it financially want to use their good fortune to help loved ones. For born-frees of color, that means pulling entire families out of the poverty forced on them by apartheid. It doesn't leave much over for themselves. The phenomenon is so pervasive it has its own name: the black tax.

During apartheid, blacks and coloureds – South Africans of mixed European and black or Asian ancestry – were forcibly removed from the wealthy city centers to their dusty outskirts, leaving the best homes and work for the whites. Though today all South Africans are born into freedom, the legacy of this forced relocation lives on. “It’s not like when 1994 came, people were all given homes and your parents made more money," says Candice Mama, 28.

Unlike their white counterparts, black and coloured born-frees must often travel great distances to attend university or find decent work. Once they do, their wages go largely to help provide for less fortunate family members. "We have to work double-time, because we still have all this damage we need to fix before we even get to where we're going," says 27-year-old fashion designer Cindy Mfabe. "Before I even buy a house, I need to think about my parents."

The effects are felt down to the cradle. "If you're white, your parents opened a bank account for you when you were young, and they saved money for you," says William Zondi, homeless at 22. High-school dropout Phumlani Gongo, 18, agrees: "When a white child is in his mother's womb, she's already got plans for him, she's already budgeting for him."

Zinhle Mfaba, a 24-year-old college graduate, explains why: "Their grandfathers and great-grandfathers have been working and saving up, while our grandfathers have been fighting. It's like we have to start from scratch." Despite her science degree, Mfaba has had trouble finding a job – a risk she knew she was running from the start of her studies. Youth unemployment has exceeded 50% for most of the past decade.

At first glance, it looks as if that figure also helps keep the "tax" in place: 80% of jobless born-frees are black. But whites make up only 9% of South Africa's population. That means young whites often pay the price for past discrimination. Legislation meant to rectify the wrongs of apartheid has inadvertently hurt them: they now often lose the race for scarce jobs simply because they are white. "We're evening the scales, and that's something that needs to happen for social reform," says Kevin du Plessis, 28. "But it's sad to hear that many of my friends feel like they're not always being judged on their skills."

Cindy Mfabe (27, left) grew up in Alexandra township. She works hard to make it as a fashion designer.
John Turner (17, right) studies at Hilton College, one of the country’s most prestigious all-boys schools.

The Streets

Afew weeks into Nonjabolu's stay, Amahle's sister tells her it's time to start paying her share of the rent. When Nonjabolu says she has no idea how to get the money, the sister kicks her out.

Shocked and alone in an unknown city, afraid to go back home, Nonjabolu roams the coastal streets desperately looking for answers.

The Parade lies nestled between sandy white beaches on one side and high-rise hotels on the other. The bleak reality hiding behind the buildings is Durban’s street children, hundreds of boys and girls who roam the streets day and night, looking for food and a spark of hope – or simply something to do. They live together in the city's derelict buildings, fighting over the few thin mattresses that lie strewn across the dirty floors.

As day turns into night, Nonjabolu talks with the children she meets in the park. Some are high on nyaope, the preferred heroin-based mix on the street. Others are teenaged girls sitting aimlessly on the parks’ benches, talking with men twice their age. All of them are homeless. Nonjabolu doesn't yet realize it, but she's now one of them.

Chapter 2

Out of Work

In June 2019 president Cyril Ramaphosa called the country's sharply rising youth unemployment rate "a national crisis". He was speaking at an event on National Youth Day, which commemorates the landmark 1976 uprising that turned the long, slow tide against apartheid.

South Africa has one of the most advanced economies on the continent, yet unemployment has soared since the end of apartheid. The country's official statistics agency estimated youth unemployment at 52% at the start of 2019; by the year's fourth quarter it had risen to 58%. It is the highest youth unemployment rate in the world.

Like all young adults, born-frees dream of successful careers. They want to be fashion designers, teachers, forex traders, musicians and entrepreneurs. But even with the right qualifications and diplomas, young South Africans struggle to find work. The scarcity of jobs leaves many of them sitting at home, searching for ways to make ends meet. With luck, they find work as house cleaners or nannies, waiters or fast-food clerks. 

Sometimes the best they can find are "piece jobs": rising early to wait at a corner near a busy intersection or major construction site, hoping someone will tap them for a day of hard labor spent hammering, welding or painting. At day's end they're dropped off at the corner where they began, a bit of cash in their pockets. Unschooled jobs like these bring in enough to buy food and other basics, but not enough to move out of their parents' home.

Slow economic growth, a poor educational system and corruption all contribute to the high unemployment rate. “Nepotism is very big here," says born-free Innocent Moreku, 22, who owns a small roadside shop. "People put their families and friends in jobs; they basically buy the jobs.”

Youth Unemployment rate

South Korea
The Netherlands
United States
United Kingdom
South Africa

Unemployment Statistics 2019 - Trading Economics

Have you seen Nonjabulo?
Aid worker
We haven’t seen her for a while. I tried to look for her yesterday, but can’t find her.
I wanted to photograph her today. I’ve been walking around on the Parade, but don’t see her.
As soon as I see her,
I will tell her you are looking for her.
Maybe try the park? Last time I saw her she was hanging out there.
I’ll try... I hate that place, it feels unsafe.
I will let you know if I see her.
Innocent Moreku (22, left) tries to make ends meet with his vintage clothing store – a mobile rack on the pavement in Pretoria’s city centre.
Lwando Nkamisa (26, right) grew up in a village. He went to study at the prestigious Stellenbosch University and joined the DA, South Africa's main opposition party.

Boys share a dinner at Hilton College, in Hilton, one of the country’s most prestigious all-boys schools. (2019)

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Mobile toilets in Alexandra township in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela lived here in 1941. Alexandra is facing problems with public service delivery, even though it abuts the affluent suburb of Sandton. (2013)

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Girls walk past a barbershop in Kayamandi township in Stellenbosch. (2018)

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Men work out at a makeshift gym in Kayamandi township in Stellenbosch. The township was founded in the early 1950s as part of the apartheid regime's drive to increase segregation. (2018)

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Students practice for a water polo match at boarding school Hilton College in Hilton. (2019)

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Housing blocks in Cape Town's gang-ridden neighborhood of Manenberg. (2015)

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Jason Noah (21) arrives at a night club in Pretoria to celebrate his 21st birthday. Jason is a foreign exchange trader, an activity that has made him millions of rands. He grew up in a middle-class family. (2018)

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People enjoy lunch at the luxurious Mount Nelson Hotel. The hotel opened its doors in 1899 and is considered a Cape Town landmark. (2019)

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A group of homeless boys smoke drugs in a dilapidated house, which serves as a makeshift shelter, in downtown Durban. (2019)

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Fifty families stay in Eagle's Nest, a township close to Pretoria with a majority of poor whites. Now that the law no longer favors them, whites more often lose the race for jobs. (2009)

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A member of the anti-gang unit searches a boy's body for gang-related tattoos in Manenberg. Drugs, alcohol and gang violence are rife in this notorious Cape Town neighborhood. (2015)

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A domestic worker sweeps the floor beneath Tanya Grobler's (19) feet. The family does not know its maid's name, though she has cleaned their home daily for years. They call her by saying “tsss tsss.” (2012)

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Like many unemployed young South Africans, Nonjabolu searches for work in a store or a restaurant. But with the soaring unemployment rate and her lack of a high-school diploma, she fails to find a steady job. After a few nights aimlessly walking the streets, she decides to find a bed in a shelter. She asks around and someone shows her where to go.

She enters the building, an old two-story flat, and is directed to the main sleeping hall. She finds an empty bed to sleep in, but the bed is without a blanket. Unsure of what to do, she asks the man next to her where she can find one. He looks up and tells her she can have his in exchange for sex. Shocked by his answer, she says no and sleeps without a blanket.

That night she realizes she's trapped in this new life. Her idea of city life in Durban seemed glorious, but now, lying on this bed without a cover, she knows it's anything but. Without money, she has no way to find food or shelter. Her mind starts to race; she feels panic engulf her body. In that instant Nonjabolu misses her mother and her hometown of Pietermaritzburg, but she doesn't want to go back.

That night she makes up her mind: she’ll find a way to get by in Durban.

Nonjabulo sits among homeless men in front of one of the city’s homeless shelters.

Many homeless children in Durban roam the streets behind the touristy Parade.

A courtyard walled in by some of the city's derelict buildings, where homeless children sleep.

Nonjabulo washes her face in the shelter before going back out on the street.

Chapter 3

Crossing Boundaries

The Afrikaans word apartheid means separateness – literally, apart-hood – and this one word describes exactly what life was like during those decades. Cities, schools, public buildings and beaches were targeted to one of two groups, euphemistically called "Europeans" and "non-Europeans", meaning there would be a whites-only area almost everywhere you looked.

The born-free generation knows apartheid only through stories, and at times they find its reality hard to grasp. Some are unsure how it affected their parents' or grandparents' lives. Lwando Nkamisa, 26, thinks that's because the trauma is so recent: "Apartheid only ended 25 years ago; many of our parents are still too traumatized to talk about it. They would rather talk about slavery in America, the caste system in India, or racism in Europe, than about apartheid in South Africa. I think they don't want to reopen old wounds.”

While some born-frees still encounter racist attitudes, the majority, especially in larger cities, feel that racism is slowly disappearing with the old generation. Most of them harbor no resentment toward other ethnic groups, and say they either are or could be friends with someone of another color. "In the end we're all South African," says Shane Veeran, 23, who has wrestled with his own Indian descent: too white to be black, too black to be white. "We all bleed South African blood."

Those that don’t have friends outside their own group attribute that to practical reasons that stem from the country’s divided past. “I don't live in a place where I can meet a lot of white people and have white friends,” says Zinhle Mfaba, 24. She lives in Soweto, the sprawling township outside Johannesburg that was once designed to segregate the city's black workers outside the exclusively white city center, and is still largely black.

Kevin du Plessis, 28, started questioning his parents’ racist attitudes at a young age. The vast majority of his social life is still white, but he attributes that to circumstance rather than attitude: “I have a lot more white friends, because in Gauteng province where I live, you don't find that many black kids who speak Afrikaans. It's just so much easier to socialize and be yourself in your own language.”

Though overt racism against people of color is declining, institutional racism is still common. In 2019 an independent commission researched allegations of racism at the University of Cape Town and found there was evidence of a "systematic suppression of black excellence" at the university. And racist attacks do still occur, across the color spectrum: white against black, black against coloured, coloured against Indian, and every combination in between. Though the media report these attacks as the isolated stories they are, many older South Africans feel them as a blanket offensive: all of "them" against all of "us".

Younger South Africans have a chance to end this violent legacy: they have only ever known mixed schools, mixed bars and mixed hospitals. But their parents were raised in the segregated past, and not all of them are ready to leave it behind.

This is a scene from Afrikaner Blood, a short documentary produced by Elles van Gelder and Ilvy Njiokiktjien.
All blacks are barbarians

– Kommandokorps’ self-proclaimed leader “Colonel” Franz Jooste

“Colonel” Franz Jooste (57) is the leader of the fringe right-wing group Kommandokorps.

The camp teaches white Afrikaner teens to eschew Nelson Mandela's vision of a rainbow nation.

Jooste gives hate lectures to the boys at night.

Cadets take a break in the field during lunchtime.

An instructor demonstrates gun use techniques.

Cadets are worked to exhaustion during exercises at the nine-day training camp in Carolina.

Two recruits assist each other while putting on camouflage in the field.

The boys' faces are marked by exhaustion as the days pass.

By the end of the camp the boys have absorbed Jooste’s racist message.

Zakithi Buthelezi (27, left), grandson of prominent Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, knows much about the country’s history.
Wilmarie Deetlefs (24, right) never cared for her Afrikaner background because she feels it is associated with apartheid.
Oh, man… Nonjabulo’s story just makes me so sad.
Aid worker
I know - I feel bad for her too.
We try to help her as much as we can, but it’s difficult.
What’s difficult about it? 
She just does things her way.
Sometimes it feels like she doesn’t want any help.
She told me she doesn’t want to be helped all the time.
What scares me is all those men on the streets that try to take advantage of her. 
She is strong, though - I hope she knows how to stay out of trouble.
God this girl just needs to get her life straight.
The places she goes to…
I am afraid to follow her sometimes with my camera. The places she goes are so dodgy.
I just hope she stays safe.  


One afternoon Nonjabolu is walking through the back alleys of Durban. The sun is slowly setting; the evening is about to begin. It's nice and calm in the streets. She doesn't feel safe by herself, but she struts forward with pretended confidence. She's on her way to the Parade, to see if any of her friends are there.

A car appears out of nowhere and pulls up beside her. The driver opens his window and asks her where she's going. "Just walking to the beach," she replies. The man offers to drive her there. She's hesitant, but he seems friendly, and harmless enough. A tantalizing thought starts to grow at the back of her mind: maybe he'll take an interest in her, and who knows – maybe he'll want to date her. She decides to trust him, and jumps into the passenger seat.

They don't exchange many words as he drives toward the beach. Then he makes a sharp turn, back in the direction they came from. Nonjabolu anxiously asks him what he's doing. He tells her there's no need to be afraid; he's decided he'd rather take her to his apartment to chill and have some drinks. 

He also says he can see that she's desperate. In a soothing voice he explains he only wants to help her out – and to give her some money. Nonjabolu tells him she doesn't want to have sex with him; he tells her that's not his intention at all. He parks the car, opens the door for her, and walks her to his apartment. Once inside, he locks the door behind her.

Chapter 4


People of color growing up during apartheid were not free to study wherever they wanted. By 1959 the apartheid regime had largely shut black, coloured and Indian students out of the country's top universities. The effect was to further disadvantage these economically fragile communities.

In the mid 1980s the ruling white regime began to loosen these restrictions, and in 1991 then-president F. W. De Klerk outlawed segregation in South Africa's universities. It was progress – but poor schools and the economic gulf meant few people of color could achieve higher education. Many of the born-frees are the first in their families to graduate from college.

Lwando Nkamisa, 26, is one of them. He grew up in a village in the Eastern Cape province. "This area is nearly 100% black. I was the first one in the family to go to a white university. When I moved to the Western Cape to study at Stellenbosch, the whitest university in Africa, I remember walking into the student center. I had never in my entire life seen so many white people in one space. It was terrifying."

For many white born-frees, the situation is quite different. A good education is established family routine, obvious and unquestioned. John Turner, 17, is in his final year at Hilton College, one of the country’s most prestigious all-boys schools, where he is head of house. But Turner is quick to point out that not all whites share his privilege. Working-class whites can rarely afford the tuition at South Africa's boarding schools and universities.

But the gap is shrinking: scholarships and bursaries have opened up many wealthy secondary schools like Hilton to a more diverse student population across South Africa.

Students at Tom Naudé High School in Polokwane, walking from one classroom to the next between classes. (2012)

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Students at Isolomzi Senior Secondary School in Centane during a ceremony to celebrate their matric (senior year) results. The town is one of the country's poorest communities. (2019)

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Boys walk from their dormitory to class at Hilton College, in Hilton, one of the country’s most prestigious all-boys schools. (2019)

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Students celebrate graduation day at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. The school selects Africa's most promising young talents and teaches them leadership and entrepreneurship. (2014)

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A teacher and her students after class at Brandwag Primary School in Bloemfontein. (2018)

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William Zondi (22, left) lives on the streets in Durban. His mother died when he was 7 years old.
Jason Noah (21, right) grew up in a middle-class family, with both of his parents working as police officers.
I went to a private school as a child. The education was great, but I felt out of place being this Indian boy surrounded by all these rich white kids.
But I’m lucky I got to study there; many black kids won’t make it to a private school, because their parents don’t have the funds.

Shane Veeran (23) studies drama at Wits University in Johannesburg.



Nonjabolu looks around the stranger's apartment. He tells her to have a seat on the couch and he sits down beside her. He moves his hand up and starts to fiddle with the buttons on her shirt. She firmly says no and tries to stand up. He pushes her down and slaps her face with his other hand. She screams. As the man forces himself on her, Nonjabulo screams louder and louder. Then someone knocks on the wall beside her: a neighbor, worried by the screams.

Nonjabolu's assailant stops what he's doing, but when the knocking stops, he picks up where he left off. Nonjabulo shouts and kicks. She hears footsteps in the hallway; they stop by the door to the apartment. She screams once more, and the neighbor raps on the door. The man hisses at her to get dressed. Moments later he kicks her out of the house. "Go away, you stupid woman," he thunders before he slams the door shut.

Left alone in an unfamiliar area, Nonjabolu tries to find her way back to the shelter. She doesn't have a clue where she is, and she has no money. A girl she meets on the street tells her she's in Morningside, a long way from the beach and the city center. The girl, shocked by Nonjabolu's disheveled look, gives her enough money for a taxi back to the Parade.

A few months after the rape, Nonjabolu gets lucky. She finds work in a clothing store. But eight weeks into the job, her boss says that if she wants to continue, she has to sleep with him. She refuses and loses her job, sending her back onto the streets.

Chapter 5


Election day, 27 April 1994. People queue in long, snaking lines, waiting for the chance to vote in the country's first free elections. When the news comes in that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress have won, the country erupts in joy. Apartheid is over. Democracy has won.

The new freedom that came with the end of apartheid was only the start: the decades of racial division, discrimination and oppression were not magically undone. With democracy came the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a court where victims could tell their often horrifying stories of human rights violations, and perpetrators could confess their part and request forgiveness. 

Many South Africans credit the TRC with helping the country to heal the deep wounds of its past and successfully transition to democracy – but the commission also has critics. With forgiveness came amnesty, which to many felt like a sacrifice of justice. Land reform, too, has been slow in coming, and the scars left by forced relocation are felt to this day by South Africans of color.

The ANC has been South Africa's majority party since 1994. To many South Africans of the older generation, it is the country's savior, the party that rescued the state from apartheid. To many in the younger generation, it is the party that failed them. Twenty-five years later, university tuition is still too high, unemployment is off the charts, and crime is rampant. Racial income inequality has actually grown worse. 

"The maladministration, corruption and nepotism in this country are a bigger problem than the racism," says Lwando Nkamisa, 26. "People's racist views don't necessarily affect my everyday life, but the fact that corruption has kept my parents' village from having running water or electricity most definitely does." Nkamisa's anger at government corruption drove him to join the Democratic Alliance (DA), the major opposition party to the ANC. 

But many born-frees prefer the Economic Freedom Fighters, a far-left party demanding immediate land reform. It's a cri du coeur that resonates with young South Africans who feel that Mandela's dream of a rainbow nation, a democratic state without racial division where everyone has equal prospects, has miles to go before it sleeps.

Nina Cilliers (21, left) studies music in Bloemfontein. She grew up in a conservative Christian family, with six siblings.
Phumlani Gongo (18, right) lives in Khayelitsha township. He wants to stay away from crime and tries to make a living as a rapper.



The born-frees carry the weight of Mandela's dream on their shoulders. They are a resilient generation: despite the daily difficulties posed by unemployment, corruption and crime, they are passionate about a better future for their country – and for themselves.

"I think our generation is here to form reconciliation," says Wilmarie Deetlefs, 24. Deetlefs is white; her boyfriend, Zakithi Buthelezi, 27, is black. "South Africa needs a clean slate. I think that's our generation. We are the clean slate."

Words of hope for a country still struggling with its weighted past.

People order drinks at the bar at the Pirates Bowls Club in Johannesburg. One of the bands playing that night is Desmond and the Tutus. (2018)

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People sit on the rocks during sunset at Bakoven beach in Cape Town. (2018)

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Members of The Creatives, a collective of young artists led by Innocent Kgothatso Moreku (22), on a sunny terrace in Pretoria. (2018)

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A spectator looks at a runway model during the Sanlam SA Fashion Week in Johannesburg. (2009)

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Pascaline Mabasa (18) with her cousins on her uncle's farm in Deerpark. Much of South Africa's farmland is owned by whites, but president Cyril Ramaphosa has promised land reform. (2018)

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Wilmarie Deetlefs (24) and Zakithi Buthelezi (27) kiss in his car after a night out in Johannesburg. (2018)

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Children take pictures of their younger siblings performing in an end-of-year school play at Suikerbekkies Pre-Primary School in Pretoria. (2018)

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Ofentse Sean Lewis (27, left) and Sipho Lewis Maestro Azzuro (24, right) sit together on the Nelson Mandela bridge in Johannesburg. (2018)

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Darshana Govindram (24) does her shopping to prepare for the Diwali festival in Durban. (2018)

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Elihle Dudula (21), a mother living with HIV in Samora Machel township in Cape Town, is on her way to a prenatal checkup. The medication she takes should prevent her unborn child from contracting the virus. (2018)

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A man feeds pigeons breadcrumbs in the colorful neighborhood Bo-Kaap in Cape Town. (2010)

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Nonjabolu'S DREAM

Several well-meaning aid workers try to care for Nonjabulo, but despite their best efforts, it's hard to give her what she needs: a life full of loving people who don't take advantage of her. They watch in helpless distress as Nonjabulo strays further and further from a healthy, normal life. She starts trading sex for money from time to time, when cold and hunger get the best of her. And then one day she vanishes from their radar.

At last one of Nonjabulo’s caregivers tracks her down. She's been trapped by a Nigerian sex syndicate. They keep her locked inside an apartment with other girls her age, in a block of houses in one of Durban's back alleys, where she's forced to sleep with men for money, day in, day out.

A year earlier she sat on her bed in the shelter, her eyes on the future and her words filled with hope. She dreamt of a place of her own, with a husband and children. But most importantly, she said, with a safe and steady job, so she could provide for herself and her family. A dream that now seems further away than ever.

Nonjabulo needs that clean South African slate.


Ilvy Njiokiktjien – VII Photo

Ilvy Njiokiktjien – VII Photo

Henrik Kastenskov
Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Reinier van den Bos
Sharyon de Lanoi
(Reinier Martin)

Michiel Hazebroek
Thomas Knijff

Grayson Bray Morris
Jorrit Meulenbeek

Hens Zimmerman

Reinout De Geest

Getty Images

This project is dedicated to all the young South Africans who allowed me to get so close with my camera in the past 12 years.
The images and videos are here because you let me be with you.
Thank you for your time and the trust you gave me.

Born Free is a cross-media publication. In addition to this interactive long read, the stories are told in a book, a long-form documentary and a short doc. Please check out the links below.





Born Free is published and exhibited around the world.

Thanks to all the journalists, photo editors and curators who believed in this project.

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