Former South African President Nelson Mandela
Ten tough years in the ramshackle township of Mamelodi in Pretoria have not wiped the ever-present smile off Maria Mahlangu’s face.
Crammed in a one-room tenement without running water or electricity, with her husband and six children, Maria has a hard life. But she’s not one to dwell on it.
"I'm not the only one to live like this, there are thousands here," she says, her arm waving at the sprawling township located about 25 kilometres northeast of the Medi-Clinic Hospital, where former South African President Nelson Mandela has spent the past three weeks.
Established in 1953 to house black citizens, many of whom were forcibly relocated from the neighbouring Pretoria suburbs, Mamelodi today has a population of around 200,000 people.
Maria may be poor, but as she frequently notes, she’s “free” these days. "I am free because I have the opportunity to get out if I want. Before (during apartheid), thinking like that was not possible," she says, sipping coffee on a rickety chair.
Like the overwhelming majority of South Africans, Maria worships Mandela – or Madiba as he’s fondly called. "Demigod" and "saint" are just some of the superlatives she uses to describe the anti-apartheid icon. Instead of criticising the economic legacy of the father of the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ she maintains that there has been major social progress in the post-apartheid era and her family has gained from it.
Above all, Maria praises the access to education in the new South Africa. It hardly matters that she has to go to the other end of the township subdivision to fetch water and do the family’s laundry, or that the toilet - in a deplorable state – is shared between 15 families. "My five children go to school,” she says proudly. “They also eat there, the canteen is free. Thanks to Madiba, my children can read and write. They know how to think, they can get away from here," she says, laughing.
In the family’s dusty front-yard, two of her children use a piece of wood to engrave Mandela’s name in the dirt. "They are young but they already know he’s their hero,” she notes proudly. "I educate them in Mandela’s honour, in the spirit of his message of non-violence. When he is no more, we should never forget his teachings and his values."
‘My government has not let me down’
Nearly two decades after the country’s first free election in 1994, which brought Mandela to power, South Africa today is still plagued by vast income inequalities and the wealth disparities between racial groups persist.
While the country has seen the rise of a new black middle class, with the average black household income increasing over the past 10 years, it’s still just one-sixth of the average white household income, according to the latest census figures.
But Maria is not unduly upset about the new economic apartheid. "What do you mean? That we live in misery and the whites have money, power and beautiful homes? Well, all the better for them,” she shrugs. “All I can say is my government has not let me down.”
Without state funding – which provides the equivalent of 22 euros per month for each child – the family would not be able pay the rent of 400 rand (about 30 euros) per month.
The monthly income of about 240 euros that her husband brings home is just sufficient for the family of eight members to survive.
"I would like to give my daughter makeup for her birthday, but I cannot," she laments, looking fondly at Sugu, her 25-year-old eldest child, strolling in the sun in her baby pink bathrobe.
The biggest problem, she acknowledges, is electricity. "I had a generator before and we could run the TV. But it broke down six months ago," she adds, staring at a warm, empty refrigerator occupying space in the one-room home.
But not everyone in the township shares Maria’s optimism. Clutching a rosary in one hand and a cane in the other, James Zulu, a neighbour, joins the conversation in the Mahlangu yard. "You think it's okay to live in the dark these days?" he grumbles. "I'm not angry, but I think we deserve better. I'd like to take a hot shower. I’ve been showering with cold water from the tap for too long.”
But Maria and Sugu merely laugh. "Yes, yes, we saw you naked the other day", they tease him. "I would also like have my own toilet," he continues, ignoring the two women. "The ANC can do that for me: give me a little more dignity.”