A life of mother courage

What has the brave new South Africa done for Cynthia Mthebe? Given her a shack instead of a plastic sheet to live in. And that's it. By Fergal Keane
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Her baby started crying the moment I approached. It wasn't a normal baby's cry; it was something much more frantic. Cynthia did her best to soothe the baby, and then she apologised: "I am sorry, master, but she is afraid of the whites. When they came, it was in the morning and we were still asleep."

My white skin had apparently reminded the infant of the white council- workers who had come at dawn a few days earlier. The sleeping families had been driven out with shouts and threats and then the bulldozers crushed their tin shacks. Now Cynthia and her five children were living beneath a piece of plastic sheeting. Every morning Cynthia buried the sheet in the ground. What could not be seen could not be knocked down.

That was South Africa in the winter of 1993, heading into the last year of white rule. Days of darkness, days of light. A country still fearful of civil war, yet high on hope for the future. Cynthia wanted a house. And a job and education and health care. Just somewhere for my children to sleep, master, she said. Always calling you "master", the habit of a lifetime clinging on through the final moments of the white oligarchy.

I remember writing down the details of Cynthia's story. Another hard luck tale in a country full of hard luck. She had been abandoned by her husband two years before, she said, leaving her with the five children. Life had ground down to a simple routine of survival. Cynthia did not complain. She simply stated things as they were, as if poverty and abandonment had been implicit in her existence from the beginning. And yet she hoped that Mandela and the ANC would lift her out of this. The good times would come, they surely would.

As I was leaving that night, fires were being lit in the camp. I looked back and saw Cynthia and her children huddled under the plastic sheeting. If freedom were to mean anything, I thought, it had to deliver for the Cynthia Mthebes of this world.

I thought of her again during the election. I wondered whether she'd managed to join the long lines of people at one of the polling-stations.

Soon after that, I left South Africa. But I thought often of Cynthia. Why her more than any of the other "victims" I'd encountered down the years in South Africa? I guess it was that final image in the camp: the winter cold, the light from the fire, the children huddled close to her, the strange sadness of the hope she felt.

I did not properly recall her, though, until the Panorama programme rang me and asked whether I would return to South Africa. With the first elections under black rule due in a few months, the idea was to see how much life had changed for those at the bottom of the pile, the close on 50 per cent of people with no homes or jobs.

I immediately thought of Cynthia Mthebe. It took about three weeks and a lot of searching, but a black colleague of mine, Victor Mathom, eventually tracked Cynthia down. She was still living in the camps in Tembisa, he said. And there were now two more children to feed, Thomas and Thandi, her grandchildren, who had been born since 1994.

And so on a southern summer morning six weeks ago I walked down a dusty track in Tembisa and shook hands with Cynthia Mthebe. She looked tired, and her clothes were covered in dust.

"So what's changed?" I asked. Cynthia pointed towards a shack of tin and wood and told me it was her new home. Jammed in on either side were the other squatter shacks and beyond them a huge, odoriferous rubbish dump. Squatterland is a place of bad smells - sweat, excrement, paraffin, wet clothes, stale beer, burning rubber,rubbish; of one room where seven people sleep. The smell of the very poor.

Life had not really changed. The shack was better than the plastic sheet, but no mother would want to raise children there. In the summer the rains flooded the bedroom. In the winter the wind rattled through the holes in the corrugated sheeting. There was no sanitation, only a hole in the ground that Cynthia dug herself. Nor was there any electricity. Only 12 per cent of black South Africans have electricity. There was one big improvement. A water tap had been installed next to the shack.

Her life revolved around the children - five of her own and the two grandchildren. To feed her family she worked on the nearby rubbish dump. Every morning at 8am this 56-year-old climbed the hill to the dump to scavenge for tin cans. For every bag full of cans she received the equivalent of pounds 3, and half of that went to the lorry that delivered them to the recycling depot.

It could take up to three days to fill a bag. Dirty, exhausting work for a woman who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. I went with her, several mornings in a row. There were perhaps 30 or 40 people "working" the dump. As they tugged and probed, the flies rose in small clouds. "It's dirty; I get sick. But what shall we do? We must work to put food on the table."

The life of Cynthia Mthebe revealed itself slowly. Over the following days I learnt that her eldest son, Jimmy, had developed a serious drinking problem. He was in his twenties now, with no steady job. I saw him a few times, sitting outside his shack next door to Cynthia. Jimmy smiled when you spoke to him, but his gaze always seemed fixed on some distant point over your shoulder. Another boy, 16-year-old Vincent, was mentally impaired - a beautiful-looking child who sat near the shack all day with his eyes flicking back and forth, never moving far from his mother's side. Vincent should have been in a special school but Cynthia did not have moneyfor the bus fares. Her biggest worry was 18-year-old Amos. I had the feeling that he was her favourite. When I met him he was mending an old radio, head bowed in deep concentration. Like all of Cynthia's children he was softly spoken and polite. But Amos dropped out of school last year, without qualifications. Nowadays he fixed radios and danced with a rap outfit. Cynthia feared for him. "Sometimes he doesn't sleep at home; he just goes. He says he is going to his friends or to stay with his sister, but I don't know. I worry because so many children are shot dead these days."

Her real worry is that Amos is heading for a life of crime. At least one of his old schoolmates is a well known car-hijacker. The gun is the route to wealth and power in the squatter camps and Amos, jobless and futureless, can see his old friends driving large, stolen cars, wearing expensive clothes and flashing large wads of cash. Cynthia wants him to go back to school and Amos says he will. But I doubted that this would be the case.

Cynthia does have one other source of support. Her daughter Doris works as a domestic in the white suburbs of Midrand. Because she needs to live near her work she must leave her small daughter with Cynthia. Doris sees her child only at the weekends. Millions of black women are in the same position. Doris dreams of living "like the white people" in a big, clean house.

When I asked about her mother she started to cry. "The worst thing is that my mother, she is always sick. I know if she is dead, what am I going to do? She is trying to make my child live better and my sister's child live better. I am so ashamed because of them, those two little children." Shame. Guilt. Humiliation. Failure. These are the bywords of Doris' life. A mother who cannot live with her child, who cannot provide for her child.

Cynthia has a plan, though. She has put her name down for one of the government's new, serviced sites. Here the homeless are given a lavatory and a tap. There is a grant to buy bricks for a house. When I inquire about her progress the local council cannot find her name on the list. It has become lost in a bureaucratic tangle typical of the old and the new South Africas.

But Cynthia will keep trying. Although there are 3-million-plus squatters in the country, she will not give up. It will be a small house, but with brick walls and a solid roof. A place without rain or flies or rubbish. A place where a good woman can rest at the end of the long day. Before I leave I tell Cynthia that a lot of people would think of her as a hero. Did she feel like a hero? No, she said, laughing. Oh, but you are, Cynthia Mthebe. You are.

Fergal Keane's film `In Search of Cynthia Mthebe' will be broadcast on `Panorama' on BBC1, tonight at 10pm