How hate hurts everyone

When I was four and a half, I experienced the first real damage that hate can cause. I remember it as though it happened yesterday.

It was warm African afternoon , early summer and my nanny (a black woman employed by my mother to care for me) was walking me home from nursery. I can remember clearly carelessly skipping along and kicking the dust in the road, in my bare feet. We identified the different birds in the trees and chatted about inconsequential things.

We were about twenty metres from the gate to my parents property, when suddenly a police vehicle (In those days they were a greyish blue colour with the rear constructed as a cage -typical to the South African Police vehicles at that time) stopped in front of us. As the police officers stepped from the vehicle my nannny looked at me in panic and said "quick - start crying".

I couldn't work out why? it was one of those mindless "what?" moments. But the moment I saw the terror in the whites of her eyes, I burst into tears. Not because she had told me to, but because this normally warm, loving person who spent a large part of the day with me, fed me, clothed me and cleaned my scraped knees, was utterly terrified, and I couldnt see why?

The two policemen alighted from the vehicle and asked her for her passbook. (more about pass laws in South Africa here)Being human she had forgotten  it in her room, not far from where we standing, but nevertheless she had broken the law and had committed an imprisonable offence by being on the street without it. When my crying was heard from our neighbours home, my brothers best friend who lived next door came out to see what was happening. As luck would have it, his father was the local police chief and he intimated to the police officers that they would not want my father complaining to his father, that they had been responsible forced the abandonment of his child (myself) to enforce a pass law.

She was allowed to go with a warning..... she was just lucky that day, but I have never forgotten that terror. That look in her eyes, that trembling of the lip, the dilation of her pupils - silent terror. It still haunts me.

That day a seed was planted inside my psyche. I started to ask questions, some out loud and others I knew should not be asked.

I grew up feeling like a thief. I felt like I had participated in stealing the love that was meant for her children. The children that at reaching two years of age were sent back to the homeland to be raised by extended family, because black, husbands and wives and their children were not allowed to live together in white areas, or on even on their employers property. For three generations Black people were denied family life. Black women were comforting the tears of their white charges, while their own children were left in the care of their grandparents or extended family. I was one white child with one to one care. My Nanny's children had to share resources, love and support with multiple cousins whose parents were also not allowed to have them living with them beyond their second birthday.Their parents rarely got to see the major milestones beyond their second birthdays and the bonding between parent and child we all so take for granted was decimated.

And then the world wonders why there is such a large part of damaged South African society and a criminal element still inexplicably hanging around? An election and a change in government did not miraculously heal generations of severe physical and psychological damage.

What many do not stop to think about is the damage it did to white South African society. My brother said to me one day that he felt betrayed. As with all South African boys of our generation, he was conscripted for national service. All of a sudden he was made to shoot at and oppress the people from whom our nanny had come. One minute he was being fed, clothed and cared for, as well as his emotional welfare taken care of by a black surrogate mother and the next thing minute he was receiving orders to shoot at her children and family!

My feeling of being a thief did not stop there. I struggled to face the way we were segregated. It wasn't just about keeping blacks and whites apart, but as a white person I couldn't engage with black people in public without arousing suspicion. I started to travel on black public transport as a teenager. Now I'll admit there was initially an ulterior motive. I discovered the fare to travel the same distance was nearly half, so I could hoard up the money I saved on bus fares and save it.

The first time I got on a bus for black people, nobody wanted to sit next to me. maybe they thought it was a trap. But soon I became a familiar sight on the route and the regulars began asking questions. When I explained that I didn't see why I should pay more for my fare because of my skin colour, my fellow passengers laughed and invited me in as one of them....always looking for a way to spare the pennies. It got to the point when they stopped me from sitting at the window in case we passed a police vehicle and I attracted trouble. I made regular friends on that bus that I could not have made otherwise. I was 14 years old and the memory of my 4 year old toddler's trauma was coming full circle. I NEVER felt unsafe.

I shared their frustration when I saw a black person becoming victimised and sat among them many a time shedding a tear. I got to know about their husbands, wives, children and grandchildren. Families so badly damaged by a system, yet so much to give.

This particular bus journey used to take 45 minutes.  If I calculate the four years I travelled that route, I spent a cumulative  mere 45 days of my life amongst these people and yet when I turned eighteen and was old enough to vote, I did and I voted every possible route I could to change the system that prevented me from visiting the homes of my friends on the bus, and in turn prevented them from sharing a movie, a restaurant meal or a night in at my flat.

This blog post is for Sibusiso, Elsie, Charlotte, Thandi, Eric and Johannes who all travelled on that bus with me along Jan Smuts Avenue to Eloff Street. I don't know where ANY of you are now, but I hope you remember, we shared the tears and the laughs and that some of us did break the rules because we knew one day those rules would no longer separate us. None of you knew then that I had my own struggle for freedom.

I feel too emotional right now, because memories come flooding, very painful memories and so I can only deal with each experience in small bits. But the purpose of this blog post is to illustrate that no matter how far apart we appear to be, actually it only takes one to reach out and the other to grab, to end the hate.

And I hope to come home soon, and find a piece of each of you in all the South Africans I have left behind, making my life journey across the globe worthwhile. I believe that when I get home, I will find my peace.

Ruthie Richards-Hill

Ruth, a free range human being and a middle aged mum of three adult children and very young grandmother to two little girls, is a glass artist, and a digital strategist, She retains the right to change her mind about anything and believes in a compassionate approach to most things, you can contact her using the contact page on this blog.

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