Disillusioned but not yet desperate. We meet up with South Africa’s Freedom Baby, born on the day Nelson Mandela swept to power 25 years ago.9 May 2019
“I voted in this month’s national elections – but I only did it because my mother was made me do it.
“Why bother to vote for any of our leaders today? They’ve all let our beloved Mandela down,” she said
I had filmed Ntshidiseng seconds after her birth in the huge Baragwanath Hospital’s maternity ward in 1994. It was, literally, The Birth of a Nation – the title of my documentary.
Minutes after delivery her mother gave the baby her very appropriate name; in the Sotho language, Ntshidiseng means “Crossing Over.”
Walking bravely and exultantly with her newborn infant, I accompanied her the next day in 1994 to a nearby polling station.
Miriam Rapote was voting in a democratic election for the first time in her life. At least she was allowed to skip the enormous snaking queue.
That same day, the second and last of the election, white rule would end heralding a new South Africa. On May 10 1994 Nelson Mandela was officially declared president of the until-then white-ruled South Africa with dozens of world leaders and dignitaries in attendance.
Lines at this month’s polling stations were far smaller – and, among voters of all races, the buzz and excitement had gone.
The grown-up Ntshidiseng speaks emotionally about the way she feels South Africa’s politicians have ruined Mandela’s dreams – of unity, equality and a better life for all.
“We vote and vote – but nothing changes. The fat-cats look after themselves, not us.”
She was one of the very first black babies in South Africa to be called Born Frees – free, that is, from minority white rule. She grew up in a nation that was eager for change and progress.
Her life story so far echoes dashed expectations and disillusionment which have hit the nation in recent years.
“Nothing good is happening in South Africa, and I’m getting depressed,” Ntshidiseng told me as she cuddled her toddler Carlo, aged 2, on the sofa at her parents’ home – she has split from the child’s father.
“My mother, who votes ANC, pressured me into going to the polling station. She wanted me to give the current rulers one last chance. My grandmother is still wearing her green-and-yellow ANC jersey and we’ve always voted for them. But I really don’t feel motivated.”
“Things started quite well for me in life. My father Colin, with his meagre policeman’s salary, managed to get me in to a state school just outside Soweto, so I was lucky to mix with children different to me – mainly they were descended from Indian Asians. But I actually met no whites.
“As a schoolgirl I was determined to help people – to do good for my fellow-South Africans. I admired my dad for serving society by fighting crime, and I wanted to do good by becoming a doctor or a nurse.
“Dad is my hero, and so is Nelson Mandela. We would visit Mandela’s old home – where he lived before he was jailed – and saw where he came from, a house just like my parents. Yet he became a lawyer, then a politician, then a fighter, then the president. I wanted to follow his example in some way.
“But look at me now. I qualified as a Family Health practitioner, with good marks. But years later I still cannot find a job as a nursing assistant, let alone a nurse. I’ve done a bit of selling insurance by phone but I hated that job.
“I can’t get employment as a nursing assistant. That’s because to get appointed you need to pay a big bribe – or provide your body.
“Only a few weeks ago I tried yet again with 2,000 rand cash (£110) in my pocket. But the guy who said he could arrange to get me hired insisted on meeting me in a fast-food joint, not at an office or a hospital. I refused. I knew what he was after.”
It turns out that it would have taken much more than bribery for Ntshidiseng to get hired. Baragwanath Hospital and others in Soweto are not even replacing any doctors, nurses or health practitioners who leave their jobs or retire – budgets from the provincial government for the health sector have been slashed, says a top private health care executive.
Ntshidiseng is not alone in failing to get a job. Unemployment for South Africa’s young people has soared to above 50 per cent – mainly among blacks. This despite government efforts to give blacks preference in the workplace.
Whites, who mainly come from Dutch and British stock, are now just 16 per cent of the total population – but still benefit from their far better education and privileges of the past.
Ntchidiseng’s recent life story mirrors the experiences of many young South African women. “I got involved in what turned out to be an abusive relationship.
“The man got me pregnant. He would abuse me one day, bring me flowers the next. Thank Goodness I’m out of it now.
“I’d love to get married properly one day – I can’t blame all men for what some men do. But I’m not physically or emotionally ready. And I’ve got some support in my struggles.
“I’m so lucky that – unlike most girls in Soweto – I have a loving father and mother. Dad is my friend, even more so than mum. He understands me, he’s my counsellor. He’ll do anything for me.”
Five years ago Ntshidiseng made one friend who’s white – because they shared that special birth day. I had spoken on a local radio station about the film I was making about the Freedom Babies – asking for anyone born on the same day as Ntshidiseng in 1994 to contact me. Several listeners phoned or emailed the radio station.
One of the Freedom Babies was born slightly prematurely on the day of the election – because a bomb planted by hard-right whites had gone off at Johannesburg Airport the day before the Freedom Election.
The shock of the explosion seems to have sent the mother, Mary, who was working for British Airways, into premature labour. The baby was delivered in a private hospital.
Mary called the little girl Braidy Amandela – a middle name she made up to honour the country’s likely new leader. Her husband was shocked but reluctantly agreed. Mandela, who was about to take power, had been regarded for decades by whites as an arch-terrorist.
Even more ironic was Amandela’s surname. It’s De Klerk – though the family are not related to the white president who handed over the reins of government to Mandela. (They jointly won the Nobel peace prize.)
Five years ago I arranged for Amandela and Ntshidiseng, and their mothers, to meet. They spent one glorious day on the bustling Vilakazi Steet where Mandela had lived. “It was so wonderful for us that day,” recalled Ntshidiseng. “We chatted, we walked on walls, we drank cold-drinks in the cafe, we went together into Mandela’s old house. It seemed so normal.
“It was like the new South Africa would make us both happy,” Ntshidiseng said. “After all, in our parents’ days we would never have done anything together. We became friends – even though we had very different lifestyles and life experiences.”
After her degree in art and design and some modelling, Amandela has voted with her feet – as hundreds of thousands of white young men and women have chosen to do. “She’s left the country, and I’ve lost my only white friend,” Ntshidiseng lamented.
The young woman from Soweto now sits on her couch watching the television’s election coverage – an election she has personally boycotted.
“I want our new government to focus on things that really matter to us. Jobs jobs jobs yes. Expanding our economy. Ending their rampant corruption. But also tackling things that are destroying our society: like violence by men against women.
“I’ve seen it first-hand. I’m not talking only about my own failed relationship. Something awful has happened in my family recently.
“In August last year my 36-year-old aunt Thabisa was murdered – shot dead by her own husband. He fired five bullets at her, then aimed a shot at their own young child. Fortunately another family member jumped in the way and took the bullet. It hit his shoulder. Then the killer shot himself to death.
“My grandma had to wash her daughter’s body – that’s our tradition – even though the blood was still oozing from my aunt’s wounds. It’s left us all traumatised. There were scars all over her body from previous beatings the man must have given her.
“I keep dreaming that I’m lying there with bullet holes in me – killed by a man. But I’m slowly getting over it.”
Violent crime, including world-record figures for rape and for murder, is still a blight throughout South Africa. Colin was out driving his police-van today to check that law and order was being maintained in Soweto as ballots were being counted. It was the last phase of a massive security operation.
The election stirred passions and turned ugly. Police during the run-up had to deal with sporadic clashes between rival supporters, with an election monitor’s car set alight. Unlike the peaceful election that, against all the odds, was achieved in 1994 when Mandela and his party triumphed.
But Ntshidiseng, and indeed most South Africans, have priorities that present-day politicians seem unable or unwilling to address. In most cases what matters most is how to make ends meet, or how to get good schooling for their children, or decent electricity and water.
For Ntshidiseng, her recent experiences of abusive or violent men are the top concern.
Ntshidiseng plans to make a new effort to get the job she’s studied for, armed with the publicity she hopes this article will get her back home.
She hopes against hope that her life, and her country’s, can change.
“I’d like to think everything will turn out right for me and for my country, and for my little Carlo,” said Ntshidiseng. “But deep down, I don’t believe it will.”
Paul Martin is making a film called ‘Freedom Baby’ through his production company MediaZones.net.
More re PHOTOS
A unique reunion: when she turned 20 Ntshidiseng and her mother Miriam met up with the midwife who delivered her, and with the film-maker Paul Martin. Behind them is the famous photograph of Hector Pieterson, shot dead by white police in the Soweto school riots in 1976 – an event that led to months of violence and launched the anti-apartheid struggle that eventually toppled white rule.
Photos of the baby moments after birth.