Prematurely born babies receive care at the Isaie Jeanty maternity hospital, supported by MSF-Holland in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Durban - The case of two children who were mistakenly switched shortly after birth made headlines this week.

Today the Sunday Tribune can reveal that they were a boy and a girl – probably the first recorded incident in the world involving children of different sexes.

Not only is the matter subject to intense legal and ethical debate, but there is also a unique cultural aspect, because both children have been introduced to the ancestors.

“Because the case is so very delicate, and is the subject of legal action, no one involved is authorised to speak to the media,” said a source dealing with the matter.

“We have done exhaustive research and could find no other example where the babies have been of different sexes… Whatever the court decision, there are going to be no winners. It is inevitable that the children will sustain some degree of emotional trauma.”

The baby boy and girl were born on the same day in 2010 at Oliver Tambo Memorial Hospital in Joburg.

While the hospital has conceded its error, it has given no details of how it occurred.

The mistake was detected when one of the mothers had DNA tests after her ex-husband refused to pay maintenance, claiming he was not the father.

This mother then demanded that her biological child be returned to her.

However, the other mother refused.

The matter is before the North Gauteng High Court.

Experts from the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Child Law will advise the court if the children should stay where they are or be returned to their biological mothers.

Clinical psychologist Zamo Mbele, an expert in severe psychopathologies and adolescent psychology, said there would be “ramifications in the context of any specific culture in a situation like this one,” no matter which way it was resolved.

“We must consider how the rest of the family realigns to accept the court decision.

“This introduces a new dynamic into an established framework. Because the children’s anonymity will be maintained, there will not be a lack of acceptance of them in broader society, but within their families, and immediate communities, the longer-term consequences for their psychological well-being will be determined by how the matter is dealt with in the short and longer term.

“There will also be more nuanced implications involving gender: whose family has which rights, and which family name the male child will bear. It is very hard to pronounce on the future happiness of these children, but if everyone makes their well-being the paramount concern, and there is psychological education for both families, they have the chance to continue to exhibit stable pathologies.”

Complicating the matter further is the fact that both children were introduced to the ancestors as infants in ceremonies in which goats were sacrificed and special prayers said.

Dr Sazi Mhlongo, a KwaZulu-Natal expert in culture and traditional practices, said fears around the cultural and religious consequences of the swop could be easily assuaged.

“Because the mother and father in each case were unaware of the swop, they will be able to make things right with the ancestors, and will make special offerings when they explain what has happened,” he said.

“The fact that one baby is a boy and the other a girl should not be significant. Neither sex is more valued in Zulu families, although parents like to have at least one son, to make sure the family name does not die out.”

However, Mhlongo was adamant that returning the children to their rightful families was “not negotiable”.

He said that it was “completely unacceptable to not claim your own child and let it be raised by someone who is not a member of your blood or your clan”.

Internationally, there have been a number of well-documented instances of babies swopped at birth.

In June 1995, two baby girls were swopped by staff at the maternity unit of the Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, in the US.

The mistake was discovered only three years later, after one of the girls had lost her “parents” in a car crash.

Two Russian families recently won a settlement from the maternity home in the Urals that switched their baby daughters 12 years ago.

The girls decided to remain with the families that raised them, and used the compensation money to buy two homes close together, so that their biological families could share their lives. - The Sunday Tribune