'I finally felt free when my abusive father died'

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Illustration photo by Getty Images
Illustration photo by Getty Images
  • A woman speaks about the trauma of living with an abusive parent.
  • My father was a police officer, so it was not easy for us to get help.
  • The atmosphere in our home was dictated by my dad.

"I feel as though my life only began at 24 - when my father died," says Elizabeth James.*

The now 45-year-old speaks about the trauma of growing up with an abusive parent and how it has shaped her.

"My dad was very strict; he was very hard. I cannot remember a day in my childhood when he did not beat my mother. She bore the brunt of his rage - and he didn't need a reason to be angry. Anything would set him off and my brother and I were born into this situation. We weren't given a choice; we didn't deserve it."

READ MORE | From wig-making and nail art to driving, GBV survivors learning to thrive despite abuse 

The tone in their home was set by her father.

"We did not have the privilege of deciding that today would be a happy day, or today I will just sit in my room and read a book. Our day depended on the mood my dad was in. If he decided we would play a game of Monopoly all night, we had to play all night. We dared not fall asleep."

To this day, Elizabeth says she hates playing Monopoly.

Her mom would sometimes be asked to stand outside and determine the direction of the wind by putting her finger up. If she got it wrong, she was beaten. Even though the neighbours could hear her screams, no one dared step in.

Elizabeth's dad was a police officer which meant it was even harder to get help.

"We couldn't call the police, and even when we did, they never came because they knew it was him."

READ MORE | Drink spiking is rife - 'Never accept a drink from a stranger or leave your drink unattended'

She recalls one traumatic night.

"I was around 12 and my brother was nine. My dad was beating my mother again. He had her in the corner of the lounge and was just punching her. My brother and I were helpless. We just stood there and cried. There was no one to help us. My dad yelled at us to get to our rooms," she says.

"I could hear my mother screaming. I remember running into my room and just crying and crying. I then got on my knees and prayed, the desperate prayer of a child. I cried out to God and suddenly I felt a peace come over me. And the screaming stopped. My dad stopped. Not every night ended this way but that night I felt like God heard me."

Elizabeth's dad would also scrutinise their homework.

"My father would sit with his sjambok while my brother and I did our homework. He once sat with me while I was doing my maths homework and decided that the information in the textbook was wrong. He told me to go to school the next day and tell my teacher that the information she gave me was wrong. I had no choice but to do it," she says.

READ MORE | Violence against women is staggeringly high in South Africa

Elizabeth felt like they couldn't escape the trauma.

"You would think school would be an escape but because of his controlling ways, even school was a nightmare because people looked at my brother and I as if we were stupid, but we were just too terrified to disobey our father," she says.

Her brother is now squint in one eye because he was injured by their father who was beating their mother while she was breastfeeding him.

Do you have a story to share with us? Tell us here.

Elizabeth's dad turned his life around when she was 19. He started going to church and the beatings stopped. Five years later he died. 

"I have forgiven him but sometimes I feel it's unfair that he died without paying for what he did. I wanted him to take responsibility for his actions," she says.

"Even though the abuse stopped five years before he died, I feel like our lives really started when he passed away. I got my driver's licence, got a job, moved out on my own and was finally able to do all the things I was too terrified to do when he was around."

READ MORE | OPINION | A great deal more must be done to end gender-based violence – these 3 things are key

Elizabeth, her brother and mom share a close bond.

"We have peace now. My mother is the strongest woman I know. That fact that she had such a horrific marriage and still is the kindest, most gentle person I know, speaks volumes about her. She is a woman of faith and I know that it's only God that has gotten us through."

Her experiences have also led her to start a support group for others who have been in the same situation.

"I know what it's like to be the child from that family in the neighbourhood that everyone talks about, so I wanted to reach out and create a safe space for others to talk about their experiences," she says.

"It's always easier to talk to someone who has already been there. My life as an adult is so different from the one I had growing up.

"I am at peace and stronger, but not bitter. My life has a purpose and so does everyone else's, even if you came out of an abusive home. God had brought me so far; He won’t leave me now."

*Names have been changed

If you're being abused and want to connect with a counsellor, you can contact the following organisations:

• POWA on 011 642 4345/6 or 011 591 6800 (available from 08:30 to 16:30 from Monday to Friday) or 076 694 5911. WhatsApp POWA on 060 400 0669 (available from 08:30 to 16:30 from Monday to Sunday). You can also email   

• Contact ADAPT at 011 885 3332/011 786 6608 or email    

• Contacts the TEARS Foundation on *134*7355# (free) or contact TEARS on 010 590 5920 (24/7)  

• Contact the #GBV Command Centre on 0800 428 428 for counselling services 24/7. 

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.