Filmed in 2011, Township Cinderellas follows two high school students - born in 1994, the year South Africa became a democracy - as they prepare to graduate.

Shafieqah Saban and Zaahiedah Stellenboom are high school students in Manenberg in western South Africa's Cape Flats. Their hometown was created out of the forced removal of 'coloured' families from Cape Town. Unemployment in the Cape Flats runs at 60 per cent and the area is notorious for its high poverty, murder and assault rates. 

Shafieqah and Zaahiedah are 'Mandela's children' - the year group born in 1994, when South Africa became a democracy. In 2011, they graduated from high school. Their schooling was capped by a week of final examinations and culminated in the 'Matric Ball' - a rite of passage for all school graduands. They are the first people in their families to finish school - and of their class in Manenberg only 61 pupils made it this far: more than 200 students dropped out.

For both girls, making it this far is a huge achievement. Shafieqah is already the mother of a young child and Zaahiedah comes from a difficult family background and must work to pay her own school fees. But this does not prevent them from dreaming of a future for themselves.

Witness follows Shafieqah and Zaahiedah through these final days as they sit their exams and prepare for the dance that marks their transition into adulthood. For both, this is a rare opportunity to wear a dress and full make-up.

Their families and teachers are proud of them, but behind the excitement of the evening is fear and uncertainty about what their futures might really hold.


By Paul and Sam Sapin 

Most of these students were born in 1994, the year Nelson Mandela became president, apartheid ended and South Africa became a democracy. This means that the high school graduating classes of 2011/2012 are the first generation of apartheid-free South Africans. These are 'Mandela’s children', and they were promised a bright future. Township Cinderellas is a film about teenagers from the Cape Flats area of Cape Town in South Africa preparing for their high school graduation ball on the biggest night of their lives.

But 17 years on from the birth of democracy in South Africa, the outlook for many is far from bright. In the town of Manenberg where we made this film, only a quarter of the children who began school together at Manenberg High School made it to their last year of school and only about 50 per cent of those passed the exams required to graduate.

Manenberg is a tough place in which to grow up. Its population of roughly 80,000 is not only hit by poverty and social disintegration, but has the highest rate of public violence in Cape Town. There is a lot of substance abuse, HIV/AIDS and gang activity. The flats in the blocks that were built here in the 1960s and 1970s, when black and ‘coloured’ communities were forcibly removed from Cape Town under the apartheid regime, were designed for a single family. Today, three to four families often live in one-bedroom units. This makes it a real challenge for young people to navigate a way forward for themselves.

It came as a surprise, then, that many of the young people we met felt so hopeful about their future. They acknowledge that growing up here is hard, and that Manenberg’s reputation counts against them when it comes to getting jobs, but they believe that it is possible to succeed if you are determined enough. All of them had stories of peers who had lost their way through drugs and gangs, although they did not consider these ‘traps’ - as one young woman described them - to be part of the legacy of apartheid. They admitted that jobs and opportunities were scarce, but few thought that was due - as it was for their parents and grandparents - to the colour of their skin.

Seventeen years ago when the young people in our film were born, the forced racial segregation of apartheid ended in South Africa. Seventeen years is not nearly enough time for the terrible scars that brutal system inflicted on South Africa to heal and not nearly enough time to build a society of equality and justice for the teenagers in our film to enjoy. But we learned that that is not going to stop at least some of them from trying.

Source: Al Jazeera