There is nothing extraordinary about my story of family dysfunction and childhood abuse. Sadly, what happened in our home is no worse than – and even quite tame compared to – the horrendous suffering endured by many children in our country today. At least, as white children, we had access to escape routes, opportunities selected and reserved especially for our race in the 60s and 70s. Superior education and exclusive schooling just about guaranteed access to tertiary education – or a job, even with minimal further study or none at all. There was always an open door for a white person once he or she left school. With only very basic tertiary education, I was never without decently paid, respectable jobs – each one a good leg-up in experience and training, with work opportunities overseas too. Though we whites could seldom sidestep hard work, millions of people from other race groups worked even harder to get nowhere, continually treading the waters of poverty and hopelessness. A white person could be drowning in dire circumstances, but there was always the belief in holding your head above water, that more had been given to you, more was expected of you, that you had much more going for you. Apartheid floated many who would otherwise have sunk. I think I was one of them. What is perhaps unusual about my story is the surprising reliability of justice.
After 45 years of believing that no one would be forced to face, in a court of law, what they had done to us, justice suddenly appeared in the distance as if she had been coming all along. Why had we doubted it? Justice for some might streak in like a hare, but for many others disclosure, exposure, consequences and even punishment can come plodding along like a tortoise. Justice, for me, is not a verdict of guilty and the handing down of a sentence. It is the legal invitation to speak out in equal measure to the bullying to which we submitted. The law can decide what happens next. The remarkable in my story is, without doubt, to be found in the people my sister Lisa and I have recently encountered who have helped us to grasp the severity of our abuse, and are now enabling our rightful constitutional access to the law, which reaches way back in time. As it should. It is also, I believe, a message of hope to the countless women and children who have been robbed of body, soul and spirit by people who mete out the same cruelty that has rolled down through the generations. The tide has turned against those who abuse others, especially women and children; every victim who finds the courage to expose criminals is one more voice of encouragement to those who are still afraid.
Abuse is essentially about entitlement, and entitlement culture is not only to be found in spoiled millennials. Entitlement was around long before the great-reward-for-little-effort generation we know today. It lurks behind posh suburb walls, in township shacks, workplaces, institutions and schools. It bears down upon those it can dominate, and helps itself to whatever it wants. In the 60s and 70s, when my sister and I were subjected to years of abuse and bullying, entitlement was at the height of its game on a national scale, enforced by military superiority. When you had a gun, you could get anyone to subscribe to your way of thinking, adopt your attitudes and hide what you did not want exposed. My father had a gun. And in almost comedic mimicry of the times in South Africa, the mere presence of his gun hidden in his wardrobe manipulated behaviour, ensured control and silenced voices.
When I have taken a break to sit and reflect during the year in which my sister and I have laid charges, I gather my legs under me and rest my head back on the couch cushions. There is so much to consider, but one line of thought keeps coming to mind. Perpetrators must never think that the years have protected them. Victims must never feel that justice will forget them. Sowing and reaping is really true. But I also keep marvelling at one extraordinary fact: so many of the people within our legal system who are engaged in working on our case are persons of colour. From the policemen, detectives, social workers and counsellors to the kind, softly spoken woman who makes coffee for the victims and witnesses waiting at court, each one has treated my sister and me with compassion, and with no hint of recognising that we are of an age to have undoubtedly benefited from a system that did nothing for them. They have been a shining light of what human beings can be, in the dark, atrocious world of what they actually are. Among them all stands one dignified woman, one exceptional woman I will never forget. Her title is Court Preparation Counsellor. She was ample – not only in appearance, but in the abundance of her love and kindness that made me instantly tearful in the safety she represented and courage she invited. ‘Here, my dears, in here.’ She ushered us into a small, empty courtroom, used to prepare victims in a realistic setting. ‘This is to help you know what environment to expect, to make it less daunting.’ She closed the door behind us and invited us to sit on a long bench, facing where the magistrate would be. She stood in front of us. ‘There will be nothing to be afraid of, my dears. I will come in with you and be here all the time if you need me. You just look at me. I’ll be here for you.’
Embarrassed, I could feel tears coming. ‘Come here,’ she said, seeing that Lisa and I were shaky and nervous. ‘Nobody can hurt you now.’ She pulled us both towards her, one on each side, and held us, just like we were two small girls in the safety of a mother’s arms. ‘It was terrible,’ she said, ‘but you don’t need to be frightened any more. I will sit here every minute with you if you want me to. You just call for me and I will come.’ And with that, she pulled herself tall, releasing us to watch her as she declared: ‘And when you see them,’ she spat the word out with distaste, ‘you look neither left nor right. You do not even give them a tiny glance. You hold your head up high and give them The Cold Shoulder.’ And she walked across the room with all the dignity and bearing she could muster, slapping her right hand hard against her left shoulder. ‘There! Like that. The Cold Shoulder. Just The Cold Shoulder. You give them nothing but The Cold Shoulder.’ She strutted and slapped across the room again, head held high, nose in the air. ‘That is all they deserve from you, my dears.’ Then, with an indignant sniff as a finale to her Oscar-winning performance, she fell about laughing – and so did we. I had a feeling she had done this before. She would have had to learn many times over when to give The Cold Shoulder and when to just laugh. I think that is a lesson worth learning.
To this day, I remain astounded that such a mundane and innocent suggestion nof taking a drive to look at Christmas lights could toss a grenade into our family, blowing out the holes that let the wolves in. Walls can always be rebuilt, but too often the victim becomes the prisoner.