We filmed a baby being born in Soweto just as Nelson Mandela won South Africa’s first Freedom Election. What’s her life like now?

10 February 2019 By Paul Martin


South Africans go to the polls on May 2019 for an election that allows every South African over the age of 18 to cast a ballot.  That of course has not always been possible… the first genuinely democratic election, allowing the majority of people, the black population, to vote, happened (just under) twenty five years ago. 

And on the day of the election our correspondent Paul Martin was making a film in South Africa: called Birth of a Nation.  He’s now back there again – searching for a baby born on that historic day.

He wrote in 2014:

The scene on April 28 1994 was almost surreal. I was the only white person among a huge crowd of remarkably exuberant and orderly people at a polling station in the black township of Soweto – every one of them voting in a national election for the first time.

There was much to be cheerful about: the threatened civil war did not erupt despite a series of bombs. White extremists were humbled and, after many bloody clashes, shootings and stabbings, Zulu nationalists suddenly revoked a call for civil war, and their leader’s name Mangosuthu Buthelezi was literally stuck onto millions of ballot papers nationwide.

The day went off in a blaze of goodwill and peace.  It was indeed a Miracle Election.  

And an extra miracle for the lady who had just voted alongside me:  Miriam Rapote was coddling her  baby, born hours before in a Soweto maternity clinic. 

Miriam called her baby girl Ntshidisheng – which in the local language, she explained to me, meant: Crossing Over – crossing that is from the Old to the New South Africa. I’d just videoed this baby being born, then handed to her mother, for a film that I planned to call: Birth of a Nation.

Miriam told me: “I want the baby to become a doctor.” Her proud dad, a policeman in Soweto, turned up an hour later – thrilled to have added a female to his two previous male offspring.  “Good, she can cook and clean for me,” said her four-year-old brother.  He was serious.  The midwife joked there would be no food for the child in the new South Africa.

I didn’t even make a note of their surname.  How could I find them again twenty years later?  In Soweto I had been flashing photos I’d taken on Ntshidisheng’s day of birth.  And I found Colin – still patrolling in a police van!  

He’s hardly changed at all. But Soweto has.  As we drive around what he says is a less violent township, I’m pleased to see that most of the houses in his area of operation have now got walls and fences and small neat planted gardens. Some parts of Soweto still have tin shacks and slums, and criminals – Colin showed me a whole district where car thieves cannibalise stolen vehicles so they can try to re-sell them untraceably.  Crime is still far too high says Colin – yes that’s bad, says Ntshidisheng, the baby who’s now just turning 20.

Ntshidisheng is studying Primary Health Care at college and wants to become if not a doctor then a physiotherapist.  A couple of days ago I filmed her – excitedly watching the film of her own birth – then spending an exuberant afternoon with another remarkable baby…  born on the same day she was, 20 years ago.  Ntsidisheng and the other girl, who’s white, meet up for the first time – and they’re walking and singing and even dancing down Vilekazi street, near Nelson Mandela’s old small home. The white girl’s mother called her Braidy A-Mandela, named after the man who she knew would soon lead her country.

A name Braidy Amandela says did not at first impress many of her white friends and schoolmates even in the ‘new’ South Africa.  But Ntshidiseng tells Braidy Amandela it’s a great name.  And there’s an ironic twist too. 

Because Braidy Amandela’s surname just happens to be: De Klerk – the same surname as the last white president, though she’s not related to him. 

They’re both lively, extrovert young ladies. Braidy Amandela’s studying marketing, is an avid skateboarder, modern dancer, and surfer. Ntshidiseng admits she’s bossy and almost always gets her way!  In Vilekazi street the girls pose for a photo alongside a portrait of the current state president Jacob Zuma, running for re-election. 

Braidy’s decided not to vote; but Ntshidiseng says she’ll vote ANC,  even though she says Zuma is “not my President – he’s done bad”.. As they sip milkshakes together in a swish café on Vilekazi Street, their mothers both say this could never have happened 20 years ago, when whites and blacks were still segregated and suspicious of one another.

And that counts for even more than the ballot-box, and speaks much more powerfully than the bullets that so nearly disrupted the day these Miracle Babies were born. 

LONGER VERSION

“How do you feel now that, finally, the people are getting rid of you guys?”   I just couldn’t resist asking the question.

The scene was almost surreal. I was talking to a South African cabinet minister in Soweto, alongside a statue of Hector Peterson – that’s the young boy whose photo, being carried dying or dead in his older brother’s arms after being shot by the South African security forces, became the most graphic symbol of resistance to apartheid. 

I had myself just handed in my ballot paper in Soweto after queuing with a huge crowd of remarkably exuberant and orderly people – every one of them voting in a national election for the first time.  Except me.

Being classified white, I had had the privilege of voting once, aged 20, before I had to leave South Africa to go into British exile aged 23.  I’d been banned from returning, even to see my dying father, and had just got my South African passport reissued to me after 17 years; so you can perhaps understand how pleased I was to see the end of apartheid rule on that historic day 20 years ago. 

The white cabinet minister paused, and then replied to my barbed question. ‘Getting rid of us?’ he said.  ‘No they’re not.  Because I’ll still be in government.” 

I realised what he meant.  One of the amazing political results of the deal struck between Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and the ruling National Party under FW De Klerk was that after this so-called Freedom Election there would be a government of national unity. 

The Nationalists, whose policies had caused untold hardships for black people for four and a half decades, and had led to decades of enforced exile for anti-apartheid activists like me, were to enjoy some of their past privileges as government ministers. Most of the white officials would remain in their posts. 

The unity government – majority ANC but minority National Party – was slated to go on for another five years, though in practice the so-called Sunset Clause lasted less than that.  Frustrated at his lowered status, De Klerk pulled his party out, and it sank into well-deserved oblivion.  

But 20 years after the ANC had taken power, there was much to be cheerful about: the threatened civil war had not erupted – just before the Freedom Election white extremists were humbled and Zulu nationalists fell into place and took a slice of the governmental spoils too.  

It was indeed a Miracle Election.  And a special little miracle for the lady who had just voted alongside me.  Miriam Rapote was coddling her hours-old baby, born on the day of the Freedom Election in a Soweto maternity clinic.  Miriam called her baby Ntshidiseng – which in the local language, she explained to me, meant: Crossing Over – crossing that is from the Old to the New South Africa.

I actually filmed the baby being born . Her proud dad, a policeman in Soweto, turned up an hour later – smiling from ear to ear at having added a female to his two previous male progeny. The midwife joked there would be no food for the child in the new dispensation. 

I had lost touch with that family.  But I’ve just found them again: Colin is still a policeman, driving his van around a less violent Soweto than when I used to report from there… most of the houses in his neighbourhood have no got neat walls and fences and small neat planted gardens.

Some parts of Soweto have tin shacks and slums, and high crime rates – Colin showed me where the car thieves cannibalise stolen vehicles so they can try to re-sell them untraceably.  Crime is still far too high says Colin – and so too says Ntshidisheng, the baby who’s now just turning 20. 

On the day she was born her mother said she wanted the baby to become a doctor.  Now Ntshidisheng is studying Primary Health Care at college and wants to become a physiotherapist.

And I’ve just seen her having an excited, exuberant afternoon with another baby born on the same day she was – 20 years ago.  Ntsidisheng and the other girl, who’s white, are walking and singing and even dancing down Vilekazi Street, near Mandela’s old small home.

They’ve come together because of the film I‘m making that started 20 years ago: Birth of a Nation, a title I took literally. The white girl’s mother called her A-Mandela, named after the man who she knew would soon lead her country. A name Braidy Amandela says did not impress many of her white schoolmates – and indeed is even today seen by some blacks, she says, as a sort of insult to the great icon.

Ntshidisheng tells Braidy Amandela it’s a great name.  And especially appropriate, as Braidy Amandela’s surname happens to be: De Klerk – the same surname as the last white president, though she’s not related to him.   

As they, and their mothers, black and white, sip milkshakes together in a swish café on Vilekazi Street, their mothers both say this could never have happened 20 years ago, when whites and blacks were still segregated and suspicious of one another. 

I’m sure the man who used to inhabit that tiny little redbrick house across the street, Nelson Mandela, would have invited both of them in.  And that counts for even more than the ballot-box, and much more powerfully than the bullets that so nearly prevented this ‘Miracle’ from coming about. 



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