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Township Cinderellas: Shafieqah and Zahiedah at the Matric Ball

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Shafieqah is determined to go to the Matric Ball in her new dress, with or without the father of her child. Zahiedah is determined to go to the Matric Ball in the dress she chose, not the one her mother wants her to wear. Two teenage girls, the shimmering prospect of a night out...who doesn't recognize this picture?

I just watched Township Cinderellas, a touching documentary made for Witness by Paul and Sam Sapin. The filmmakers follow two girls who were born in 1994, the same year as the new South Africa, and the year that I first set foot in that country. The girls have both made it to 12th grade in their Cape Flats township school, and are now graduating high school.

Both Shafieqah and Zahiedah are the first in their families to finish high school. Both come from incredibly difficult home situations. They are very similar to the clients we see every day here at Ubuntu Education Fund in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, young women who are eager and bright, with daunting obstacles in their way. Shafieqah became pregnant and had a child, much to her father's anger, but managed to finish school and pass her exams. Zahiedah's parents split up. She lives with her grandmother and works in a hotel to pay her own school fees. They are two of only 61 students in their school to make it this far -- over 200 dropped out along the way.

At Ubuntu, we see girls like Shafieqah and Zahiedah. We see the debilitating effects of poverty, HIV, and racism. We spend a lot of time and effort in explaining these children's unique situations to our supporters around the world.

This terrific little film does something important. It shows how these children are the same as our children, how teenage girls will be teenage girls, and how there is absolutely no reason why teenage girls in South African townships deserve fewer opportunities than those in living in the suburbs of the developed world.

Zahiedah's mother wanted Zahiedah to wear the dress she chose. Shafieqah's father refused to speak to her after he learned about her baby. Both parents were outraged at their ungrateful children. Both parents came around at the end, and were proud of their daughters' achievements. Sound familiar?

Children born in 1994 are known as Mandela's children. The lucky ones finished high school in 2011. They are the future of South Africa. We are proud of them and will not forget them. They are the reason Ubuntu does what it does: support children holistically. They might live a hemisphere away, but they all want what we want: to take a deep breath after years of hard work, put on a dress and rock the house at the Matric Ball.