Remembering Rose

2010-01-18 00:00

THERE was a notice inThe Witness last week for the funeral of Rosalie Ann Couve de Murville. Most people in Pietermaritzburg, where she was born and grew up, knew her by her maiden name Rose Richmond.

Rose changed lives. At the height of apartheid, when it was totally against the social convention for races to mix, she ran a non-racial youth club at St Mary’s Church in Loop Street. I was not part of the group, but I know others who were. All of them, in a strange way, reflect the qualities that Rose imbued — a quiet dignity, a zest for life and deep caring for fellow human beings.

By 1975, apartheid as an experiment in social engineering was deeply entrenched. The Group Areas Act was fully enforced and people lived in their own racial enclaves. Along came Rose, who was a teacher at Pietermaritzburg Girls High School at the time. With her brother Chris and the blessing of the parish priest, Father Rodney Boyd, they got the youth club going.

Activities were simple; doing fun things together like folk singing, playing games, holding discussions, and just getting to know one another. This did not come without a price. Many fellow white parishioners were totally against what they were doing, but there were a few who were supportive and who allowed their children to join the youth club.

Firm friendships were formed across the racial divide, some of which last until today. Others have lost touch with each other, but still greet each other warmly when they meet.

Those well-known theatre personalities, the Broderick sisters, were members of the youth club. A friend, Richard Moodley, remembers telling his children, while watching Isidingo, that he knew Judy Broderick (who plays the role of Stella). They did not believe him, until one day during a chance encounter he was warmly greeted by Judy. His children are still in awe.

The youth club led Rose and her brother Chris to get to know the families of the children in their charge. They were invited to birthdays, weddings and other celebrations. Their presence and warm engagement did much to break down racial stereotypes.

The Richmond residence in Kitchener Road was an open house and the family did not hesitate to invite their black friends whenever they had social gatherings. Such was Rose’s compassion that she once rescued a young woman, who was a beggar on the street, and gave her a place to stay.

It is hard to believe that in the 70s and 80s, a time of deep division and racial suspicion in this country, there was this small corner of non-racialism right here in the heart of Pietermaritzburg.

Today, much is made of the heroes of our liberation struggle, but very little is known about ordinary human beings outside the political spectrum whose actions have gone a long way to counter the negative effects of apartheid.

No doubt, there were people like Rose in other walks of life who made a difference too. Reading her funeral notice made me realise that it is important to tell their stories because, sixteen years into our new democracy, the spectre of our racialised past still haunts us and it probably will for a long time to come, given how entrenched the system was.

However, it was not just lessons in non-racialism that made Rose stand out. She epitomised what it means to be a decent human being.

As part of her youth group you also learnt social responsibility and giving back to your community. I know this because I see these qualities in my sister, who was a member of that youth club, and in her friends. They don’t just live their lives, but they do it in a socially responsible manner by being involved in community activities, whether it is a ratepayers association, counselling at an advice centre, or working in their churches or among the poor.

Looking at our failing education system, where for many teaching is just a job and not a vocation, you realise that you need more champions like Rose Richmond. She understood how to work with young people and bring out the best in them.

Farewell Rose, you left an incredible legacy and your actions have contributed to a mosaic of good will. At a time when it was absurd to integrate, you took a chance and your actions changed lives.

The last time I saw you was two years ago. You were dancing at my mother’s 80th birthday party. You had a large artificial green rose pinned to your hair, it highlighted your unique sense of style and your ability to dare to be different.

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