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


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.

Archive image of Cynthia collecting cans at a rubbish dump

Cynthia used to feed her family by selling tin cans she collected at rubbish dumps [BBC]

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.

1994 picture of people campaigning for Nelson Mandela1994 picture of people campaigning for Nelson Mandela

The ANC has been in power since 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president [Getty Images]

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.

Cynthia Mthebe was one of the tens of millions to whom Nelson Mandela had promised a land of equality and justice after his release from prison in 1990. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech three years later the ANC leader spoke of South Africans becoming “the children of Paradise”.

As South Africa entered the last days of its 2024 election campaign, I headed into the rural heartland of the country’s north-west to see Cynthia, far from the squatter camp of Ivory Park where we first met.

A 1994 photo of a boy carrying an ANC election placardA 1994 photo of a boy carrying an ANC election placard

The ANC admits to failings around corruption during its 30 years in power [Getty Images]

Mandela has been dead for more than a decade and his party, Africa’s oldest liberation movement, is sliding in popularity. There is widespread disillusionment over official corruption – estimated to have cost billions of pounds – and poor governance. South Africa remains the most unequal society on earth with the average white family likely to be 20 times wealthier than their black counterparts according to one study. Successive polls have shown the ANC is in danger of losing the overall majority it has held since the first democratic elections in 1994.

The last stretch of the journey to Cynthia takes me along a dirt track, past meandering cattle, a man hoeing his vegetable patch, and groups of women and children returning from church. There are the sounds of cowbells tinkling, and kwaito (a distinctively South African take on House music) booming from a radio in one of the small brick cabins that dot the landscape in Klipgat, the settlement where Cynthia moved seven years ago.

I recognise the blue house with the lemon tree in the garden. I have been here before. In 30 years I never lost contact with Cynthia and her family. I see the elderly woman approach across the yard. She leans on the arm of her granddaughter Thandi, one of Cynthia’s family of nine children, 13 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

Cynthia puts her hands out to clasp mine and then enfolds me in her arms. “Fergal it is you,” she says. Cynthia is now blind. The woman whose keen eyes once watched over her family in the squalor of the squatter camps now lives in a world of darkness and sounds.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa out campaigningSouth African president Cyril Ramaphosa out campaigning

Cyril Ramaphosa is hoping to be re-elected as president but the ANC has seen its popularity slide [Getty Images]

She is also diabetic. The years of working the rubbish dumps and living in shacks have exacted a heavy toll. Yet her house is a place of security and peace. The facilities at the local clinic are better than those available in the city. Cynthia also gets a monthly welfare grant of 2,000 rands (about $108; £85).

But the house was built by her children, from money they patiently saved doing whatever work they could find. Her eldest daughter Doris found a job in a white-owned shop. Eldest son Phillip works in the markets in Pretoria, about an hour away. Grandchildren also help out. When I originally filmed with Cynthia back in the 1990s there was an outpouring of support from BBC audiences who sent money to help the family.

The Mthebes have held together as a family through their own efforts, not because of what was given to them by the state or anyone else. “Even now things are not better,” says Cynthia. “I’m trying… (to survive) by all means.

“But I don’t have power because we haven’t got food if I haven’t got money, because the grant is too small.” These days it is Doris who provides much of what her mother needs to live on, while also helping her own son and daughter.

Cynthia Mthebe with her children and grandchildrenCynthia Mthebe with her children and grandchildren

Cynthia has nine children, 13 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren [BBC]

Cynthia is angry with the government. “There are no jobs… the people are suffering. But they [the ANC] say vote for me, vote for me always. I’m not going out to vote. For what? Because it doesn’t matter. The government doesn’t do nothing for us.”

She points to the absence of running water in her home, the frequent power cuts in the area due to the running down of the nation’s energy grid, much of that caused by corruption and a failure to invest.

The ANC admits it has made serious mistakes but points to the legacy of inequality from more than three centuries of white rule, something that could not be overcome in 30 years. The party says it has built millions of houses, delivered essential services to the poor, and more clinics and hospitals. The official estimate is that 1.4 million are still waiting for homes – many believe that number is a considerable underestimate. The fact is that so much more could have been done had not so much money and energy been wasted by corruption and factional struggles inside the ruling party.

Cynthia’s view of South Africa and the ANC – she was a proud supporter of Mandela in 1994 – is heavily impacted by her family’s experience. Her middle son, Amos, was shot by criminals and is now lame, struggling to find any work in a country with an unemployment rate of more than 30%. Crime in South Africa hurts black South Africans most.

Around 25,000 people were murdered last year, one of the highest murder rates in the world. Cynthia’s second daughter Joyce was abandoned by her husband and is also unemployed. Another son, Jimmy, died from alcohol abuse in a township near Johannesburg.

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The family asked me to show them the original films I had made back in the 1990s. We sat in the heat of the tin-roofed sitting room as the past unrolled on my laptop screen. Cynthia in the tent at night. Cynthia working on the rubbish dump. The smaller children helping her. Jimmy, already lost to alcohol, staring into the distance.

Watching their own history, tears streamed down the faces of Doris and Amos and Thandi. A great-granddaughter clasped her hand to her mouth in shock at the sight of Cynthia digging through the dump.

Then Doris spoke. “I want to thank you Mum. I am who I am because of you. I love you.” Amos wiped his eyes and, struggling to speak, said: “What can I say about a mother like that. I am so proud of her.”

Cynthia had only been able to hear the sounds of that past world from the computer, and now listened to the words of her children. She was smiling. An old, blind woman surrounded by love. A brave survivor of her nation’s struggles.

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