Cynthia voted for Nelson Mandela. Now she’s abandoning his successors

'I want to live in a nice house' - what happened to Cynthia's dream in South Africa

They were shadow people, moving beyond the light of small fires on a winter dawn. There was no hint then that I was about to encounter one of the most extraordinary sights of my time in South Africa.

In this part of the country, winter is a cold, dry season that burns the veld brown. The ground is hard like flint and when the wind blows across the plains, dust covers the squatters and all that they carry.

I could hear digging, and coming closer I saw a woman hacking at the earth. Nearby other men and women were doing the same thing. They had old garden tools, machetes, pieces of stone, anything to make holes into which they placed pieces of plastic, tin and wood.

I asked the woman what she was doing. “We are hiding our shacks,” she told me.

This was a squatter camp outside Johannesburg in 1994 as South Africa prepared to vote in its first non-racial elections.

To see that vote in a nation brutalised by apartheid was to witness an awe-inspiring moment in the story of humanity. The first voters – mostly the elderly – who quietly cast their ballots pushed history inexorably forward.

Thirty years later South Africa is a very different country. Democracy has endured. The fear and racist brutality of the past is gone. But there is widespread disillusionment with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in power since Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president.

Back then, the woman hiding her shack told me that her name was Cynthia Mthebe. Her story has stayed with me for over 30 years.

As the sun rose, the squatter camp gradually vanished under the earth. One hour before, there had been a community of several dozen shacks and flimsy tents. Now there were only people, wrapped in blankets, sitting around fires.

Children dressed in their school uniforms were heading off in the direction of the main road, about a mile away beyond the fields. No matter what degradation they suffered here, parents fought to give their young an education.

Cynthia had seven children then, and took care of them on her own. Her husband walked out on the family several years before and had not been heard from since.

Every day she, and the other squatters, buried their homes so that they would not be bulldozed by the government. And every evening Cynthia came back, dug up her home and slept there with the children. They had been teargassed, shot at with rubber bullets, but still they returned. There was nowhere else to go.

“I want to live in a nice house with my children because I’m suffering. I want to be the same like white people. I’m suffering because I’m black,” she said back then. Cynthia fed her family by working on a rubbish dump, collecting tin cans which she sold in return for a pittance. Just enough to sustain life on the margins of existence.

In the unfolding narrative of her life is the story of millions of South Africa’s poorest people. She was born on a white-owned farm in 1946 – two years before Afrikaner nationalists came to power and began implementing the policy of apartheid.

Racial discrimination was written into law. Every aspect of the life of non-whites – from where they could live, what jobs they could do, who they could marry – was policed brutally by the white government. Torture, disappearances, daily humiliation haunted black lives.

Under so-called Grand Apartheid, the state would dump millions of blacks into barren tribal “homelands” where they were given nominal independence. In reality they were abandoned to poverty under the rule of despotic local leaders. Then there were the laws under which people were racially classified. One of the race tests involved pushing a pencil through a person’s hair. If it came through without obstruction they were classified white. If not they were cast into apartheid’s world of discrimination.

One of Cynthia’s many painful memories of apartheid is of her time working as a maid in a white household in Johannesburg. She was offered some leftover food and began to eat it from a plate belonging to her employers. “The madam of the house told me I should never do that, to eat from the same plate as them. It was like I was a dog,” she told me.

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