Sylvia’s story

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Warning: This story contains descriptions of child mortality that some readers may find disturbing.

It was the ‘70s and a young Sylvia* and her family were living in Nyanga East. It was a time when strict pass laws were in place, and the family’s movements were heavily restricted, affecting where they could live and work. Her family did not have the right passbooks for Nyanga, so Sylvia’s father dug a large hole in the middle of their small house for the family to hide in when the police came to check their passes.

One night, the police were checking passes in Sylvia’s community and they came to her family’s home. Sylvia was nine months pregnant at the time and she was too slow to climb into the into the hole that her father had built. The police saw that she did not have the correct pass, and they arrested her.

19 years old and terrified, Sylvia was taken to the court in Cape Town where she was sentenced to three months in prison. They sent her to a hospital ward cell for pregnant women.

“I entered and heard the key turning in the lock as the door closed behind me,” she recalls. “The first thing that I saw in the cell was several dead babies at the foot of their mothers’ beds.” Sylvia soon learnt that the mortuary only came once a week to collect the babies who did not survive birth, so the mothers in the cell were forced to live with the dead bodies of their children until the next collection.

Heavily pregnant, Sylvia knew it was only a matter of time before she went into labour. With no nurses or doctors around, she was scared for her own life and for the life of her unborn child. “Another woman in the cell told me that she would help me when I started going into labour – but then she said that I would have to pay her first. I didn’t know who I could trust.”

When her first contractions came, Sylvia took herself to the bath. She made sure to keep very quiet so as not to draw attention to herself. “I sat in the bath and I prayed to God, I told him ‘You are the only one who can help me now.’” Sylvia stayed in the bath for as long as possible but the baby did not come. She decided to return to bed and soon after, she gave birth to a baby boy.

There was no way to cut the umbilical cord and the door was locked, so they could not call for a nurse. One of the women in the cell climbed onto the back of another woman and shouted for help through a small hole in the ceiling. Eventually, they heard footsteps. A nurse came in, cut the umbilical cord and left. “I will never forget the sound of the key in the door as she walked away,” says Sylvia.

Sylvia’s son, now 51 years old, survived the birth but he has been left with severe developmental challenges. “I do not know if this was caused by the birth, or maybe because I was unable to breastfeed,” she says. For the first two months of her son’s life, Sylvia was only able to feed him water and half-cooked mielie meal.

Sylvia’s son is very vulnerable as a result of his developmental challenges and even though he is a grown man, he is an easy target for gangs. “My son has had to be supervised for his whole life. Today, he cannot be left unattended because he likes to wander away from home.”

If Sylvia wants to leave the house or come to the senior club, her daughter must stay home to watch him. “I am so worried about him. I am 75 years old now – what will happen when I am no longer here to look after him?”


Sylvia attends the Masibambane Senior Club daily, where she is provided with two warm meals, healthcare and counselling services, income-generation projects and recreational activities. She is one of over 1,000 seniors who attend Ikamva Labantu’s senior clubs.

*Real names have not been used.

By donating R300 a month, you can provide an elderly citizen like Sylvia with daily meals & safe transport to our clubs.