Is Bete the world's oldest person?

Time of article published Dec 1, 2005

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By Lebogang Seale and Ngwanya Mazwi

Who is the oldest person in the world?

Well, she may be living in South Africa.

A 119-year-old Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, woman is possibly the oldest living person in SA and may be the oldest person living in the world today.

Noninji Elizabeth Bete was born on May 21 1886. The soft-spoken mother of seven can still get around with the aid of a walking stick.

"I was very strong during my time and I am still strong," she said on Wednesday, shaking her fists to demonstrate her strength.

According to the Guinness World Records website, the oldest "fully authentic age" to which a person has ever lived is 122. The record was held by Jean Louise Calment, who was born in France on February 21, 1875. She died in 1997.

Bete, who turns 120 in May next year, could well surpass that record, judging by her health and strength.

The current record for the oldest living person is held by 114-year-old American Elizabeth Bolden.

She became the oldest person following the death of Hendrikje Van Andel-Schipper, of the Netherlands, who died in August this year.

Maryna Daniels, a senior official at the local department of home affairs, confirmed that Bete was the oldest living South African.

"I was phoned by a social worker this afternoon to confirm that the ID number was indeed correct. I then checked in the population register and saw she was the only person still alive who was born in the 1880s," said Daniels.

Bete can't remember much about her past. She said she had worked as a nanny for a white family at a nearby farm. "When the family's children grew up, I then worked as a domestic worker," Bete said, letting her toothless gums beam.

She remembers that her family moved from a farm to Grahamstown, where they settled in Tantyi township.

"We had no cars in our days and we used horse-drawn carriages," she recalled.

She also noted that there were no traffic lights in those days. "There used to be someone giving directions by waving his hands in the middle of the road."

She attributed her long life to her parents, who had taught her to respect other people. She said that not drinking alcohol had also helped her.

Bete, who can't remember when her husband died, had seven children, three of whom are still alive. She also has 15 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren. She said her greatest wish was to meet Nelson Mandela.

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