Kopano Matlwa is a medical doctor and an author, and a prominent voice among South Africa’s ‘born free’ generation, those who have grown up in the post-apartheid era. But as the thirty-six-year-old shows in novels such as Coconut and Period Pain, undoing “three hundred and fifty years of perverse social engineering” does not happen by magic. While Matlwa acknowledges the contribution of Mandela and others in ending white rule in South Africa, she says that the country has become too mesmerised by the miraculous transition to democracy that occurred. In a conference focused on the present and future of South Africa, she began by describing how social, economic and environmental factors are all still determined by skin colour.

Kopano Matlwa (South-African accent): We continue to have insanely high levels of income inequality in South Africa, tied tightly to racial lines: black men and women continue to dominate the low-paid jobs, if they’re lucky enough to have a job. Most of the wealth in South Africa is disproportionately held in the hands of white South Africans. It’s going to require intentional policies that are deliberate about undoing those centuries of intergenerational damage as a result of both colonialism and apartheid. It’s going to require that the segment of our society that benefited commit to be [being] part of the change in tangible actions.


Many misunderstandings about South Africa arise from historic prejudice. Much more prominent than black violence against whites, for example, is gender-based and domestic violence.

Kopano Matlwa: South Africa struggles with what some call the “shadow pandemic of gender-based violence” that disproportionately affects women and children. There’s been acknowledgement at the highest level of political office that this is a matter of national concern. Those kinds of acknowledgements didn’t happen because men suddenly woke up, they happened because women said ‘Enough is enough!’, women came together and insisted that our political leaders listen and do something.

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A specialist in child malnutrition, Matwla’s work as a doctor has made her aware of a diversity of interconnected issues

Kopano Matlwa: Malnutrition affects children both cognitively in terms of brain development, in terms of their immune system, but also economically: children who are malnourished do worse in school, are less likely to find jobs. So what we’ve been preoccupied with is trying to minimise as much as possible the inevitable setbacks.


Today many black South Africans are crushed into dense poor areas known as ‘townships’. Righting the wrongs of displacement as a result of colonialism and apartheid is a huge problem in South Africa. 

Kopano Matlwa: It’s a long-overdue project to restore the land of people because land is wealth. Black South Africans are crammed up in highly dense areas where there’s many people living in shacks made out of corrugated iron, vulnerable to the elements. We talk about the new democratic South Africa and‘rainbow nation but really these things need to happen in ways that are meaningful. It’s unjust that a small minority of the population enjoy the best parts of the country and the majority are living like sardines in tins.


Matlwa places hope in both the older and younger generation in South Africa who are committed to building a better future in the country, despite the challenges. 

Kopano Matlwa: In an education system that continues to draw very heavily from colonial ideals and doesn’t adequately acknowledge, let alone celebrate, African culture, languages and traditions. It’s so exciting to see the beauty of ordinary people trying to give their children a better life; young men and women striving hard and refusing to be defined by race or gender or be limited by unreliable politicians. We need many voices, there’s so much pain and there’s so much joy that no single voice can tell it all.