PIETERMARITZBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — WHEN Penny Haswell, a white South African, was first handed her adopted black daughter, Ningi, she nearly dropped her in shock. The infant was ice-cold, caked in dirt, and wrapped in an old rag.
Now, a few years later, Ningi is a bright, confident six-year-old, fluent in Zulu and English, and thriving in a privileged world that was once only white.
Since transracial adoption was legalized four years ago and white rule ended in 1994, a growing number of South African white families have adopted black babies, and more families are on waiting lists.
Many whites and blacks in South Africa have come to accept the practice. They argue that, unlike in most Western nations, whites are in the minority here, and the races in South Africa are mixing more than ever. The change in attitude is radically different from the apartheid-era bans on interracial adoption, marriage, and integrated neighborhoods.
From being one of hundreds of "forgotten babies," the Haskell's daughter Ningi, which means "One Too Many" in Zulu, is now the daughter of the mayor of Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Kwa-Zulu Natal Province on South Africa's east coast.
Why children are abandoned
Many infants like her have been victims of the ongoing political violence between supporters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its rival Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal Province, the heartland of the Zulu tribe.
Black women who abandon their babies do so because of violence, social turmoil, or because they have AIDS, says Neil McKerrow, a pediatrician at Pietermaritzburg's Edendale Hospital.
"It is largely women who are coming from the rural areas, where they had the support of the traditional extended family unit, to the cities in search of work or fleeing the violence. They find themselves alone and unable to cope economically," explains Dr. McKerrow.
Between 1991 and 1994, Edendale Hospital had on average 160 abandoned children a year. Countrywide, government officials estimate there are at least 10,000 children abandoned and another 13,000 on the streets.
In this old English colonial city, where whites consider themselves more liberal than the average South African white, whites have responded to a public appeal to take in children.
Mrs. Haswell, the mayor's wife, was doing voluntary work at a help line five years ago when a man called in saying he had found a sick baby that nobody would take. For a week in the hospital, baby Ningi did not move. But one day when Mrs. Haswell came to visit, the baby wasn't there. "I thought that was it," she recalls.
"But the nurses proudly brought me to her and there she was sitting propped up bright as a button." she says.
Posters of Ningi in Zulu and English were distributed widely to see if her mother would claim her.
When no one did, she became the seventh Haswell child - adding to their five biological children and another adopted child, a white boy.
Many South African social workers see the growing trend of whites adopting black babies as a humanitarian necessity.
"We cannot wait and hope for the perfect match," says Francesca Ledderboge in Durban. "In these cases, the kindness of a stranger is far better than any institution .... In the past these children would have been absorbed by the informal adoption system in black communities, but the extended family is breaking down, and we need to find homes for these children."
It's early yet to test how well these placements have worked. And since the criteria for adoption was liberalized, opening the doors for poorer people, more black couples are also beginning to adopt officially. These are primarily infertile couples who, social workers say, seldom admit to adopting, as infertility is still viewed as shameful in black society. Doctors and social workers say these couples go through months of elaborate pretense - faking a pregnancy - to convince others that they have had a child.
White parents who have adopted black children also speak of their own personal transformation. One woman says she felt as if she has emigrated to another country since the changes in South Africa have eased the climate for transracial adoption.
"In my observation, it isn't the same here as it is in the US. The coming together of blacks and whites has been much smoother than everybody expected. Perceptions have changed enormously," says Elizabeth Pakati, a black professor at the University of Zululand who has researched adoption trends.
Linda Aardresgaard, a widow, and her six-year-old white son speak fluent Zulu. She adopted Grace, a two-year-old black girl, in 1994. Because of a strike at the local hospital, doctors and nurses were forced to take some abandoned babies home. She recalls meeting one of the doctors who had Grace at a bookshop and saying: "That baby is gorgeous, I want her." A week later Grace was hers.
"We bonded immediately," says Mrs. Aardresgaard. "You can't believe you can love and adore somebody else's child in this way, but now I don't even think about her as not being my own child."
Ms. Aardresgaard is entirely at home in African society and, like the Haswells, maintains that the decision to adopt is in keeping with the traditional African practice of the extended family and taking in other children - the thinking was that a child belongs to the community, not to a nuclear family. The Haswells say their adopting is simply carrying on this now broken-down practice.
The Haswells have, however, made a concerted effort to expose Ningi to her language and culture and sent her to Zulu nursery school. They say it is vital for black children adopted by whites to know their language, because other black would address them in Zulu.
Ningi's father, Rob Haswell, is a leading white member of the African National Congress and, as mayor of Pietermaritzburg, his social and work environment has a distinct African flavor.
"Rather than her becoming 'white,' we have become more African - she has been our passport into a black world. The reaction from the black community has been very positive, as they recognize there is a need. If you live in the new South Africa you are surrounded by Africa," Mr. Haswell explains.
"In the beginning we used to get racist comments from whites, but the whole attitude in the country has changed so dramatically. People don't look sideways anymore. Obviously, because of my own political involvement, we have a lot of black friends and colleagues, so Ningi has that interaction and she is totally bilingual. She is a thoroughly South African child."