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New York City
May 2003

Helen 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.

Ikamva Lavantu’s 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.

Ikamva Lavantu 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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