Cycle of Shame
South Africa has the highest rate of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world. It's the most common preventable form of mental retardation. But mothers keep drinking. And kids keep getting sick.
WORCESTER, SOUTH AFRICA--Eyes crossed, Corne October walks boldly up to a stranger, grabs his crotch, and punches him in the stomach. The boy places his bony hands on the stranger's trousers and tries to pick his pockets. A minute later, he is windmilling his arms. Then, seemingly jolted by an unseen current, he jumps onto a filthy table, plugs in a hot plate, and presses his finger to it. A sister quickly pulls him away. Outside his family's graffiti-scarred home, Corne gulps a can of orange juice given him by the stranger. "It's tasting nice," he says.
In a tattered green shirt and dirty blue sweatpants, Corne rocks back and forth with a frenzy that suggests no inner peace. His head and torso are flattened and shrunken like those of a kewpie doll. Seven years old, Corne could easily pass for 3. It's not AIDS or one of the other well-known killers that afflicts so many children on the African continent. Corne suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome--the most common preventable form of mental retardation in the world. Here, amid the lush South African Winelands, nearly 1 in 15 children suffers from FAS. That's more than 52 times the rate in the United States. The high rates are caused by a messy amalgam of problems, practices, and minor plagues that somehow built over the years until an edifice of hopelessness they created for generations of children ultimately blocked out the sun. Today, there are hundreds of Cornes in the heartbreaking hovels and fields. And thousands more will be born into the same sink of seemingly bottomless misery.
The numbers barely begin to tell the story. In the poor communities of Johannesburg, the rate of FAS affliction is almost 1 in 55. Children are more than 20 times more likely to have FAS than other birth defects like Down syndrome and spina bifida. Denis Viljoen, a South African medical researcher who is leading several studies into FAS, says he's finding the world's highest rates in rural communities of South Africa. "These kids never have a chance," he says. "You can't increase their IQs. How do you reverse a cycle of poverty if your people are permanently impaired?"
Long before the end of apartheid, South Africa had established itself as an industrial colossus, famous for its diamond mines and a wide range of cutting-edge technology companies. But more than a decade after the Population Registration Act was revoked, ending the last vestiges of apartheid, a generation of kids remains trapped in a maze of abuse and dysfunction more readily associated with South Africa's brutal past.
Down on the farm. The reasons aren't hard to divine. Like thousands of other women, Corne's mother, Bettie October, grew up on a farm outside Worcester back when it was customary to pay workers part of their wages with "free" cups of wine. The people who own the world-class vineyards here eventually phased out the practice, but October and thousands of her coworkers became addicted to alcohol. October drank three to four bottles of wine a day, she says, while she was pregnant with Corne. Today she picks up her wine at the local shebeen, an illegal bar run by another vineyard worker out of a ramshackle house nearby. October pays 48 cents for a bottle and buys on account, ensuring that a sizable chunk of her weekly paycheck will go toward drink. A week's work in the vineyards typically earns her $10.58, she says. At 40 hours a week, that works out to 26 cents an hour. If October is sober enough to work overtime, she'll make an extra $4.80 a week. "I tried to stop," she says, "but it's so difficult. . . . When my friends come, we drink."