Mention the name ‘Helen’ in South Africa today, and, irrespective of your particular field of reference, three personages spring immediately to mind — Suzman, Zille and Lieberman.
And while all three of them are well worthy of the headlines, one is definitely non-political, somewhat more laid back and fully focused on the job at hand, without generally being in the public eye — Helen Lieberman, the woman who some of us wryly and proudly refer to as our own Jewish ‘Mother Teresa’.
Every now and then, however, Helen Lieberman’s name does hit the media, as in a recent major initiative by Cape Talk Radio through which over R4 million was pledged for the organisation that she founded some 27 years ago, Ikamva Labantu — this appeal specifically for vulnerable children and orphans affected by HIV AIDs.
The establishment of Ikamva Labantu was the culmination of the humanitarian work that she began in the townships some 20 years earlier, to raise and develop the skills and energies of marginalised black women, and also men. The aim was to empower them towards independence and selfsufficiency in bettering their lives and those of their children, as well as the elderly and disabled and, significantly, to develop leadership within the community.
Helen’s work in this field has been recognised internationally, and what started off as small and localised initiative has grown over the years into a vast organisation with connections throughout the world, and one that generates huge amounts of money for its various programmes.
So that for ‘Mama’ or simply ‘Helen’ — as she is called among the communities — who has always enjoyed working ‘in the field’ with ‘hands on’ contact with her very many friends, her energies have been diverted somewhat to the handling of this multi-national enterprise. As she explains, the success of Ikamva Labantu has led to and sprouted the establishment of international partnerships with a wide range of humanitarian organisations — from universities and interest groups to large NGOs and huge corporations. Friends of Ikamva Labantu have been established all over the world, including the United States, the UK, Germany, France, Australia and Holland.
“With our own history and experience we are able share our expertise with others in the development field, she says. “South Africa understands grass roots development and we can advise and mentor others — specially those who are working in other parts of Africa.”
Not only does Ikamva Labantu raise the profile of South Africa world-wide, but it also draws in huge amounts of money for its own programmes. And there’s a very large market for the products created by the women and men in the communities, which bring in tremendous funds.
Understandably and deservedly, recognition and honours have accrued to Helen Lieberman, both here in South Africa and internationally, with numerous noteworthy awards.
The latest of these, the 2008 Roger E Joseph Prize, will be presented to her in New York on 4 May at the Ordination ceremonies of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at Temple Emanuel. In the notification sent to her by the president of HUC JIR, Rabbi David Ellenson, he notes, “This prize is given in recognition of your exemplary work in providing programs for youth, the homeless, aged and disabled and giving them hope for their future with the establishment of Ikamva Labantu.”
The Joseph Prize, established in 1978, was first given to Victor Kugler, the man who gave refuge to Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. And a later recipient was in fact Helen Suzman in 1986. Its ‘theme’ is the recognition of an individual or organisation, which by virtue of religious and moral commitment, has made a distinctive contribution to humankind.
The list of eminent recipients — individuals and institutions — gives further credit to the prize’s significance, with such names as Raoul Wallenberg, Teddy Kollek, Claude Lelouch, Daniel Pearl (posthumously) and the Whitwell Middle School Holocaust Memorial and Paper Clip Project (in 2007).
Basking in her success and fame, is one of her staunchest and proudest supporters, her husband Michael, and she also enjoys the love and pride of their three children and their families — Shannon (in New York), and twins Dana (in Cape Town) and Avon (in Melbourne). Nor do they and the five grandchildren lack anything in love and joy and concern from this remarkable woman, whose large heart has a home for so many families far less fortunate.