More than 50 years after she tracked down a patient in Langa and decided she needed to do something to help improve the lives of people living in Cape Town’s townships, Sea Point resident Helen Lieberman received the highest award given by the French government for her community work.
Appalled by the conditions she saw on her first visit to a township, she made it her mission to improve the lives of people there.
Last week, Ms Lieberman was awarded the Legion of Honour for being instrumental in starting the Ikamva Labantu organisation.
“People keep telling me I’m mad and asking me why have I lived this life,” she said. “The people appreciate it, and I appreciate the people.”
The National Order of the Legion of Honour is the highest French order of merit for civil or military conduct.
It is an award for men and women in France and around the world who displayed their commitment to the ideals and values of the French nation. It is an acknowledgement of their dedication and of the role they have assumed in their respective fields.
When she first heard that she was to receive the award, Ms Lieberman didn’t believe it and asked the French Embassy to put it in writing.
She was also reluctant to accept such a huge award on her own. “Ikamva Labantu never happened on my own. It happened with, because of and for the people that I work with every day. They made Ikamva,” she said.
Since its inception in 1963, Ikamva Labantu has established 20 centres in the townships of Cape Town.
It employs more than 100 people and takes care of about 25 000 people a day – including 12 000 children.
It all started when Ms Lieberman, a speech therapist at the time, went to look for one of her patients in Langa. She had never been to the townships before.
The organisation originally operated in Langa and Athlone.
“I had no idea where the townships were. I found them and the horror of it just made me go back every day to see what I could do.
“The people were wonderful. They watched me for a while to see if I was legit or could have been a spy. There were lots of informers in those days.
“They informed me of their needs and together we addressed what they felt they needed.”
Among the first projects they undertook with residents were income generation initiatives.
They then started working with seniors as well as disabled children in the area.
“We made central places to look after these children so that the parents could go out and work and the children could get better care,” she explained.
“It wasn’t sanctioned, and we constantly had to dodge police. But we became a stronger and a better group. Whatever people felt they needed, they understood that we could do it together.
“We saw all these facilities for white people, but there was nothing for black and coloured people.”
As Ikamva grew, so too did the scope of their initiatives, as the projects included agriculture as well as crafts and clothing.
“It was formed by, for and with the people. They had ownership. As soon as they felt they could go the journey on their own, they were well on their way.
“They became independent, and that, to me, was a victory. It was about giving people the wings to fly. I was young and fearless,” she said.
In the beginning, she said, she had been on her own, with no resources, and she thanked her family for their support as Ikamva got off the ground.
“My husband was amazing, my children, although small (at the time), were wonderful (but) I was very wary of what I told my children because they were still at school. It was a difficult situation,” said Ms Lieberman.
After she had worked in the townships for a short while – and been arrested more than once – Ms Lieberman was dismissed from her position at the hospital. “After my arrests, I was dismissed.
“I was working after hours in the townships, which was not allowed in my contract. I often sat in a police van and on the floor of a police station, especially at the Nyanga police station.
“It was the worst hell hole. It just made me more resilient to carry on working. I felt the system was evil and unjust.”
She said she was extremely proud to see how Ikamva Labantu had grown from its inception. “Today it is a very formal, superbly run organisation which is governed by a devoted board, and it has community, health workers.
“It has about 150 staff and they all work tirelessly and very hard. I’m most proud of the community and their support, and although they are still living in really horrible conditions, they never give up. They are trying even harder, and they are supportive of everyone. We have this great name off the backs of a resilient and powerful community.
“I deserve a tiny bit of this award, we deserve this together. I wish I could give everyone that has worked with me, and there have been thousands over the past 53 years, a medal. Their courage, vision and insight and my interaction with the community is what gives me the energy to wake up every morning and go to work. I look at this beautiful land and I reap the fruits of it. Maybe they should think deeply of how do we share some of it. Most of all, how do we do it respectfully and with dignity. Are we teaching our children to create a better world?”
She added that her children – her daughters, Shannon and Dona, and son, Avin – work with her and “I have this wonderful husband, Michael”.
“You see things that make you very upset. He soothes me and assists me. I’m going to be 76 soon, and he’s going to be 77, and we both still enjoy our work.
“While I’m well enough and while I still have capacity, there is still so much to do. We can see tangible results daily, there is no reason not to do it.”
At the ceremony, French ambassador Christophe Farnaud, commended Ms Lieberman’s determination and courage. “
(Helen) never yielded under pressure, under the strain imposed by the apartheid police forces, (she) rather than giving way, worked with ever more determination to move towards her vision of a fairer South Africa.
“By establishing community-based structures, you (Helen) empower those you work with, from skills training to work placements, and from early childhood development to book reading clubs for the elderly.”
Ms Lieberman plans to use the R115 000 prize money to improve the conditions at two seniors’ centres.
If you want to find out how to get involved with Ikamva Labantu you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org