Helen Lieberman: 'I thought I was looking into what was hell'

Peter Bills
Wednesday 03 June 2009 11:43 BST

Back in the 1960s, a white speech therapist working at Cape Town 's Groote Schuur hospital made a grim discovery in her life.

Helen Lieberman decided to track down a baby who had not received adequate therapeutic remediation. She drove out of Cape Town , to Langa township, and found the baby, living in a shack. The conditions were terrible; there was no clean water, no comfort. As she reflected years later "You didn't see into Langa from the N2 (the road to Cape Town airport). It was hidden by a growth of thick trees and bushes. It was probably designed that way.

"But when I went there, I thought I was looking into what was hell. There was squalor, poverty and fear. The people's fear was what struck me most. It was so overwhelming and terrible. I couldn't imagine this existed in my own country and I knew I could not live and watch it happening, without trying to help. We each have to carry our own conscience. At least now I can face myself having tried to do something about it."

That experience changed Helen Lieberman's whole life. But the triumph of that change is that she, and the organisation that gradually came into being as part of her caring for people less fortunate than herself, has changed many people's lives. She is an extraordinary testimony to the good that flows as vibrantly as a river in flood through so many parts of South Africa .

Trying to get her to tell the story of her extraordinary life is difficult. There is almost a hostility, a fierce shield long since erected to preserve her own emotions and downgrade her role. She much prefers it that way. But the facts speak for themselves.

Today 'Ikamva Labantu' is a massive organisation that helps thousands of people in need in South Africa. It builds and supports crèches, schools, senior and youth centres, programmes for the disabled, skills training and building initiatives.

It employs social workers, occupational therapists, community fieldworkers, nurses and teams of volunteers and raises vast sums of money all over the world to help disadvantaged people living in poverty in South Africa. There are retail outlets in as diverse location as Cape Town's Waterfront, New York , Los Angeles , London , Australia and Germany.

Then there is 'Community Creations', which controls the products made by the organisation and sold for funds, 'Community Angels', carers who reach out to children who are unsupported and vulnerable and 'Community Mamas', ladies who help take children at risk under their wing.

Little by little, in her own words, what started out just trying to help people help themselves has become a success story of bewildering proportions. Today, an international organisation exists that has become the lifeblood of funding and human care for untold numbers of people from the disadvantaged communities.

But there is a subtle difference to Lieberman's life work which puts her apart from so many other organisations. She prefers to inspire others, to help them help themselves. Simply raising money is not her chief ambition; instead, she seeks to use it to train, to teach and help those less fortunate improve their own skills in life, thereby enhancing their ability to lead fulfilled lives.

Community Creations began with startling simplicity. Lieberman realised that no dolls of colour were ever made in apartheid South Africa . All South Africans could buy were white dolls with blond hair and blue eyes. "I said to myself, 'It's alright loving that if you're a little white girl, but if you were a black child, wouldn't you want a black doll?'"

The original idea came from Lieberman getting involved in trying to help the people of the townships. She discovered that children were often being left to fend for themselves during the day, perhaps because their fathers were away and their mothers had to work. People began to ask her for assistance and Lieberman vowed to help, setting up an ad hoc child minding service. "But then we realised we needed something for the children to occupy themselves. There weren't any black dolls to be found so I decided to make some myself.

"I told my husband and he said 'You are mad.'"

Depressingly, the apartheid police were soon suspicious of the white lady who was a regular visitor to the township. They suspected she was an informer, engaged in subversive activities and often pulled her in. She remembers sitting in police vans, cuddling a little black baby who had been left alone all day by its mother. The reality of these injustices simply drove Helen Lieberman forward with ever more courage and commitment.

But simply caring and assisting wherever she could, was never her main goal. She dreamed of establishing centres where the local people could work, could learn skills that would improve their situation. Incredibly, astonishingly, that dream gradually began to unfold.

She taught them how to sew, that was one of the first things, and people began to make some of their own clothes. Then, disabled seniors were given job creation skills. Others worked in fields they had never imagined could be within their remit.

"People took responsibility and did things themselves, and that is still our ethic. We work alongside as a nurturing, promoting, enabling umbrella body, allowing them to fulfil the needs of their own communities. We support a lot of the children with in our pre schools."

She smiles, and sighs. "Of course, had I known what it would grow into, I would never have started it! It is now a monster, it consumes everybody's lives. You certainly can't do this unless you are devoted to this South Africa and the concept of a better world for all South Africans.

"I believe this is something unique here because everybody is taking ownership. This is not an organisation about me or any other single person. So many people now play their part, it has become something everyone can feel part of."

It seems hard to believe but today, a staff of 125 helps run the organisation from the Cape Town offices. Helen is helped by tireless workers such as Ishrene Davids, Bridgette Brukman and Sipho Puwani. Utilising people's skills all over South Africa to assist projects in most of the major cities has been Lieberman's mantra and this is personified in all manner of ways. Two blind ladies who man the telephones in the office are a shining example of the creed. Put simply, it is 'a role for everyone'.

In Gugulethu township alone, they first found 50-100 blind people who, under the organisation's care and assistance, have become qualified aromatherapists, operating now in the upmarket suburb of Kenilworth . The qualifying course they took had to be specially modified to cope with blind people, but it was. In another programme, so many people have been taught skills to make them computer literate. Some of their former charges have now qualified as lawyers and social workers, all through the programmes put in place for them.

But look well beyond as modest a figure as 125 staff. Around 35,000 pre-school children are now cared for all over South Africa by the organisation. This takes about 1,300 official carers, all drawn lovingly into the organisation to help and do their bit. But there may be as many as 50,000 people actually assisting or working in some way for the organisation.

"We take in children that are unsupported and have thousands of children evolving in the system" says Lieberman. "People on the ground and professional staff all work together.

"These are the people who have made this a success, not me. I could not have done it without the input and the caring of so many ordinary, decent human beings. For this is very much a community run and owned organisation. That has been the common thread which has run right through the whole idea. You can't do all this without the support of community leaders and the local people. They have bought into this and they want to volunteer their time and services. We don't own the projects, they own them.

"The people are the backbone and builders of this country. Most are not acknowledged and are still given a terrible, raw deal. But if we don't have the goodwill of these people, what do we have?"

Today, through its worldwide outlets, the organisation may provide funds for electricity bills or school books for kids. The focus remains, not on showering people with money but on helping those less fortunate acquire the skills whereby they can improve their situation themselves.

What does a woman like Helen Lieberman think of the modern day politicians who live well while so many still endure a daily nightmare in this land? "Those that have been trusted are destroying Nelson Mandela's dream" she says, her face grey with anger and disappointment. "I look at this ruling party (the ANC) and I see its demise. They have the wrong values. They haven't delivered and they don't know how to deliver. The leadership has been really poor and in some cases corrupt. It is a disgrace – what are we teaching our children?"

Yet she remains confident about South Africa 's future because, as she puts it, she is surrounded by so many caring, decent people prepared to give their time to help others. How could you not feel upbeat, given that scenario, she asks, rhetorically?

"There is so much goodwill that has been given to us by so many people. Now, we are like one big team."

They have started to work with the Government as Lieberman explains. "They asked us to work with them but it has taken them a long time to understand the value of skills and the great possibilities of cementing partnerships with NGOs (non-Government officers), people that have the experience. NGOs have accountability. We are transparent about what we do for we are accountable to our donors.

"It is sometimes difficult for people to get their heads around the diversity of our working with children, youths, families, seniors and the incapacitated such as blind people."

Perhaps so. But a conversation with Helen Lieberman helps explain so much. Clearly, she is the passion and energy behind this organisation, much as she loathes being singled out for mention, still less praise. But use the word 'charity' and she bristles at the suggestion.

"Charity is the worst thing; you destroy people because you don't give them the ability to be self sufficient. The biggest gift you can give people is the feeling of self worth and the capacity to look after themselves. Our aim is to take people to the point where they can fly on their own. My biggest achievement is when I hear people say they don't need our organisation any more."

Of course, fund raising and financial support is crucial to underpin so large an organisation. Volunteers can offer much but hard cash is also an essential requirement. To that extent, the organisation has overseas donors and enjoys the support of corporate business, in the country and many others. It has taken 35 to 40 years for Helen Lieberman to foster these working relationships, to elicit the levels of support necessary and build the organisation into what it represents today; namely, a source of hope, a beacon of light for many people in what remains an often dark and cruel world.

Has she ever wavered in her intent, her commitment? In the early days, a lot of would be donors told her to her face they didn't believe she had a hope of achieving her aims, and didn't believe such an organisation could exist. That, she admits, was soul destroying but it meant barely a stumble on her forthright march.

Today, all these years later, she could rest on her laurels, her work more than done. But that is not her way. "We don't expect anything but the best for our communities. That is where the Government has failed. How can the Government do all this spending and then look at the squatter camps?

"When I was young, I could have looked at those townships and run away for life. But I couldn't accept my country was like that. I had to try and do something to help..."

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