Sipho Mpongo

Born Free

The ‘Born Frees’ make up about 40 percent of the population, and the critics among older South Africans contend that they are apathetic and apolitical, unaware of the history of the struggle that made their lives better. Will they allow themselves to be defined by the scars of apartheid, or will they embrace freedom, choice and opportunity? Taking responsibility for being exactly where you are gives you the power to be exactly where you want to be. They are the future. I will focus on the future.

The ideologies of freedom in South Africa vary in almost every corner, baring in mind that South Africa is diverse country.  How then can we expect the new generation of young people in South Africa to be defined by a political term ‘Born Free’ which also suggests that before the first Democratic Election in South Africa, the young people then were not regarded as free.  What is it with the youth of 1994 that is free? Is the term referring to the black children that were born after their parents burnt dom-passes and voted for the first time in their country or does it refer to white children who could finally have a black friend without the segregation rules? Or does it mean both, if so then I think it’s fundamental that we should look at the post Apartheid system and how it has affected the lives of young people in South Africa with different backgrounds. The environment I grew up and the problems I had to face as a young person in South Africa fail to describe me as free.  I became very conscious of where I belong in this country and what I could offer to other people I  meet especially young people. I wanted to find out their definition of freedom through examining their social dynamics and their interaction with me as a stranger in their space who share the same confusion of what it means to be a born free in South Africa. My process throughout the whole journey was learning and teaching. The confusion began at calling every youth born in 1994 as free. We can all agree that the majority of white children were long free compared to the majority of black children in South Africa before the first Democratic Elections in 1994.

I allowed myself not to only look at other born frees the same way I look at myself but I was more interested in our life experiences, environmental backgrounds family problems and statuses. Most importantly what we make out of ourselves.  Through long dialogues and playing, laughing and crying a moment shared is the moment I captured through writing and photography.


Sipho Mpongo was born in the Eastern Cape in a rural village called Nqamakwe in 1993 and was raised in Langa, Cape Town. Illiso Labantu, a local photographic mentorship programme, provided the platform for Mpongo to launch into a photographic career. Sipho has recently completed a full time course in study at the Cape Town School of Photography whilst simultaneously contributing to various photographic group shows and projects in Cape Town and internationally. Most notably Mpongo recently had fundraising exhibition at Pace/McGill Gallery in New York to help children in South Africa. Mpongo recently won a prestigious  Magnum Foundation Photography and Human Right Fellowship Award at the New York University.

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8 thoughts on “Sipho Mpongo – Born Free”

  1. This young photographer has an EXTRAORDINARY eye….some of these pics are just fabulous and also allude to other iconic work (i see a Harvey allusion with that pic in the dancers with the light streaming through lattice work)…and of course the portraits and some of the observational stuff, which breathes the very joys and difficulties and contradictions that exist…

    in many ways, reminds me of a visual version of Cole’s ‘Everyday is for the Thief’ (though that book Nigeria)……and encourage Sipho to read that extraordinary book…..

    so beautiful to see a young S.african documenting his life and his nation rather than through the eyes of an outsider…and because of that, all those complexities and ambiguities, the coming together and separating once more, live fully out….

    i’ll stay silent on more specifics, just that many of these photographs are both beautiful and full of pain and contradictions….lots of joy in the images, and lots of questioning and sorrow…

    watch this young man, y’all

  2. I too find this to be very impressive, especially from a story perspective. The subtle distinction between the different types of freedom now enjoyed by both dark and light skinned South Africans is what, imo, elevates it. It sets up a very powerful contrast that gives the work a profound depth that would be lacking if the photographer focused on the experiences of people of just one skin tone instead of both.

    In the photographs themselves, I agree with Bob that they are very good, and I see a lot of room for growth, which I consider a good thing.

    Whether it’s better for being done by a local rather than a parachutist, I can’t say, but I’m happy to see it nonetheless. But given the quality of the storytelling, I don’t think this photographer is limited to his or her (sorry, have no idea if Sypho is a girl or boy’s name) backyard. I’d really like to see what he or she would do in mine, or anyone’s for that matter.

  3. I’ll second Bob above. Wonderful photographs, full of life, light and love. My only nitpick is why the caption on only the first one? I’d rather all captions or no captions.

    Congrats! CP

  4. btw, that image “Domestic worker at Inanda club in Sandton. 2014” is BRILLIANT MOMENT….frankly, i’d use that for the cover of a book……so so much in that picture…..:)

    EVERYTHING about south africa is contained in that image….just as the portraits of the ‘new’ s.africans, glorious :)…and the triumph of the Mountain image (guessing Capetown)…and the powerful last 4 portraits……

  5. I sure was relieved to see they found the five year-old. My first time through, I had no idea the five year old had ever gone missing and then got found. Captions can make a HUGE difference in an essay – as they did also regarding the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

    I also agree with all the statements above regarding the quality of pictures and talent of the boy. Good job, young Sipho!

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