There was a time when hitch-hiking was a common way for many people to get around this country. Some South African readers may even remember the designated areas set aside to pick up uniformed soldiers on their way home for a weekend pass. There used to be an atmosphere of generosity all over the rural areas especially: people of any age, hue or gender were given a lift as far as the motorist was able and then dropped off at the side of the road to try their luck getting a lift for the next leg of their journey.
My father regularly halted to give people a ride. There would be a smiled thank you, a cheerful wave and an occasional blessing as we drove away. My brothers hitch-hiked. I was forbidden to. Even then, my father deemed it unsafe for a young girl to thumb a lift on her own.
I did once though, in the company of two dear friends who had guided me from the summit of the Drakensberg, overnighted with me in a forester’s house, and who stood beside me on the national road as we sought a lift to Pietermaritzburg. I had fallen ill during a traverse along the top of the mountains and remember little other than the blast of air as vehicle after vehicle passed us without a second glance.
To be fair, they may already have made their decision in advance: two young men and a young woman, each with a rucksack, probably did not present an easy option. We were eventually given a lift in the back of an enormous truck. How grateful I felt at the time.
Times have changed. When did they change? How did they change? Why has the situation of hitch-hiking changed? At first there were a few news items of drivers being attacked by their hitch-hiking passengers. These might have been dismissed as unfortunate incidents for such news was mostly tucked inside the main pages. Drivers became increasingly wary about giving lifts to people of any age, hue or gender once such reports crept onto the front pages: attacks, death-threats, murder, and car hijackings – all ostensibly committed by hitch-hiking passengers.
The real losers are the hundreds of innocent people who, without a means of transport of their own – or money for buses – stand patiently at the road sides all over the country and wait in hope. How long and unpredictable their journeys must be!
Another aspect of hitch-hiking has changed. In my youth there was never a question of charging anyone for a lift. As a willing driver you would check where the hitch-hiker was heading for, explain how far along the road you were travelling, and the hitch-hiker would come on board if the arrangement suited. Now you see people standing at the side of the road waving a R10, R20, R50 or even a R100 note as a sign of their willingness to pay towards a segment of their journey. Even the simple act of giving someone a lift because you happen to be travelling in the same direction has been altered – dare I say, by greed.