Lieberman: Education Reformer in South Africa
With the end of apartheid
in South Africa, a new war—one against AIDS, HIV, poverty, and
an unprepared society—is being waged, explains Helen Lieberman,
legendary, long-time activist in the country’s black townships.
“The legacy apartheid left is that blacks received a different
kind of education from whites and lower expectations.” They do
not have the basic literacy or job skills to support the new system
and create an infrastructure. They must understand basic health
issues, such as clean water. Educational facilities are poor and
children still “do not get the wonder of learning.” Teachers are
ill prepared. Residents are now free to leave the townships, specific
areas created by the previous government to segregate blacks,
but cannot because they “are still chained to poverty.” They may
also have a language problem because many township schools taught
in the local language rather than English.
Thirty years ago,
Lieberman, a white speech therapist from Capetown visited a black
township and was shocked by the living conditions of her countrymen.
And so began her extraordinary journey of grass-roots activism
to address overcrowding, unemployment, and lack of social infrastructure
and social services. She started working with communities in small
ways and kept a low profile to avoid government obstruction. Projects
started to take shape and day care centers, senior clubs, schools,
and training centers arose (in keeping with her philosophy, projects
and buildings are always owned and run by the community). By 1992,
apartheid had been abolished and her projects had so proliferated
in numbers and strength that it became necessary to establish
a coordinating umbrella organization, Ikamva Labantu (“the future
of our nation”). A community-based, non-profit, non-governmental
organization, Ikamva Labantu reaches 55,000 people annually with
over 1,000 programs. It addresses needs of the homeless and disabled,
assists rural community development, builds schools and trains
teachers, offers sports programs, and has 525 day care centers,
13 youth centers, 22 senior centers, and 4 disabled children centers.
It brings to the schools anti-drug and anti-violence programs
and “basic growing up stuff” such as health education, self-image
enhancement, and “work shadow experiences” (hundreds of children
accompany adults to work to see what, for example, a plumber does).
Adult education in life skills such as personal hygiene and managing
money is considered vital. Ikamva Lavantu has 6 job skills training
centers and several factories that employ its graduates. Products
such as dolls, children’s clothing, handbags, back packs, Christmas
decorations, and guest towels are sold around the world and the
profits used to train and employ more workers, fulfilling the
mission of economic empowerment and self-sufficiency. Sixty home
care workers have been trained for a new program in home care
service for the elderly and frail.
motto is, “Nothing about us without us;” each program shares executive
power with local leaders who are responsible for its success.
A community must initiate a project by expressing a need. In discussions
and committee work, each side determines what it can contribute
and how goals will be met and measured. Lieberman explains, there
are “no hand-outs, no entitlements. A person has got to want to
do it. We can open the door and give the space and a bit of money
but the person has got to work harder than we do, has got to be
productive.” The large multicultural staff includes a managing
director, program specialists, social workers, teachers, and researchers
from universities and medical schools. Seeing how her small initial
efforts have blossomed, Lieberman says, “I’m part of an amazing
team that’s been together for thirty years.” Referring to the
new era in South Africa, she explains, “there’s a wonderful forgiveness
on one side and reaching out on the other. People work with their
whole hearts with people they wouldn’t have associated with before.”
It is becoming a model for similar programs elsewhere in Africa.
receives no funding from the South African government although
its ultimate goal is to become redundant as all programs become
government supported and mainstreamed. A tax-deductible 501(c)(3)
non-profit organization, it currently relies on private funds.
To support its important work, checks made out to Friends of Ikamva
Labantu can be sent to it at 215 Overlook Road, New Rochelle,
NY 10804. Phone information is available at (212) 666-0604. Its
Web site is www.ikamva.com.#
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