Community and transformation work
Interest in Theology
When I finished school in 1975 I experienced a clear call to fulltime ministry within the Dutch Reformed Church, the church in which I grew up. However, in the mid-seventies women had been excluded from ordained ministry and all positions of leadership within the DR Church. It was with great pain that I decided to follow an alternative career path by studying psychology. I continued my participation in the church of my youth, but became increasingly frustrated with the way in which my church so seldom recognises laypersons as theological agents in their own right. I developed a very successful practice as psychologist and found my work a very meaningful way of expressing God’s love and compassion in the world. However, my life was dramatically impacted by the drastic political changes that started happening in our country at the beginning of the nineties. It had the effect of robbing me of a lot of the “certainties” that had formed part of my everyday existence up until that point. I was extremely disillusioned to realise the extent to which the Dutch Reformed Church, with it close ties to the National party, had supported apartheid. The injustices and the social problems that stemmed from apartheid pained me deeply. I could no longer be passive and ignore my responsibility to participate in restoring some of the injustices to which I contributed as a white Afrikaner and member of the DR Church and through benefiting so much from the privileges I had taken for granted all my life.
I started questioning my work as a psychologist and my calling as a Christian: as private practitioner only 10% of the community had access to my services, while the 90% who could not afford my services clearly suffered such immense trauma and had such limited access to services. I decided to volunteer my time and services to people from disadvantaged communities and I was struck by other realities. I was inviting chaos into my neatly organized practice where the time-equals-money principle worked so well with its one-hour sessions on-the-hour-every-hour. As people who live in poverty have limited control over time, transport, work conditions, care for their children etc, they did not fit into my schedule. I soon discovered the truth contained in what psychologist Swartz and Gibson refer to as the ‘mechanistic and a-contextual tradition in many psychological theories’ and the fact that ‘most South African psychologists were white and trained to work with middle-class patients, from similar backgrounds to their own.’ These ideas were extremely limiting to the application of psychology in the broader South African context. The sheltered and privileged life that I had led as a white South African provided a further handicap in understanding the hardship and social problems that clients from poor communities spoke about. I was completely overwhelmed and disempowered: I felt that I had nothing to offer.
In 1997-1998 I was forced to take time off to reconsider my position as psychologist in the broader South African context. During the two years of my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to attend intensive training in Narrative Therapy with Michael White, an Australian family therapist, who developed this approach together with his colleague, David Epston, from New Zealand. From this therapeutic framework I learned to consider the broader socio-political context and to include consideration of power and its operations and effects on lives and relationships when seeking to participate in the healing of people. Because Narrative Therapy is an approach that is more collaborative, it required a significant shift in how I viewed people and their struggles. The client is viewed as an expert on his/her own life and the therapist joins the client in the search for alternatives for his/her life. This shift implied not just a retraining: it required a re-positioning of my own life and views in terms of what are often the taken-for-granted views of the dominant culture. I learnt about ways in which to approach communities in distress and how to combine therapy with a stance for social justice. My participation in this training brought me in contact with South African colleagues who shared my values; it also provided opportunities for heightening my awareness of the injustices of the past (and present).
In the meantime, I had started up my psychology practice again, using my house as premises. By keeping overheads down, I was able to volunteer two days a week to work outside my practice. My first contact with a community outside my own was the Strand Muslim community where I worked with boys who were stealing. My paper (Morkel 2000) on this work was received with enthusiasm by colleagues who approached me to offer training and supervision. I developed a vision that the passing on of Narrative Therapy skills might inspire other psychologists to work in impoverished communities. Since 2000 I have developed an extensive Narrative Therapy Training Practice. This work includes training and supervision for colleagues in the fields of psychology, social work, pastoral work and counselling. I have also offered Narrative Therapy training in four master’s programmes at three universities.
Moving beyond the consultation room
I believe that saying sorry for past injustices is very important. However, without giving back – “doing sorry”- through acts of restitution asking for forgiveness is empty. The discrepancy of services available to poor communities compared to the services in middle-class communities is a grave injustice. Some of the ways in which I try to reach out to communities where the needs are often overwhelming is by volunteering support in various ways. This involves, amongst others, supervision of therapeutic work, de-briefing of staff, skills training of staff and volunteers as well as acting as a compassionate witness to the work of community workers. I have listed some the organisations and individuals that I supported in this way. Strand Muslim Community
In 1999 I volunteered my services to work in a school in a disadvantaged community. I was fortunate to meet Bridget Hamley-Wise, a school psychologist who worked in our area at that time, who shared my concern for the lack of services in the impoverished communities. Bridget introduced me to Sadik Fanie, principle of the Strand Moslem Primary School. He required help with a group of six boys between the ages of eleven and twelve who had been stealing for many years. I consulted with the boys and their families and documented the story of this work. I extended my work to other pupils and families in that community and developed a partnership with Sadik Fanie in which trust developed and concerns could be shared. My collaboration with the pupils, staff, families and school contributed to the healing of racial prejudices, trans-cultural and inter-religious learning as well as bridge-building that has had far reaching effects for me, my community as well as the Muslim community.
Over the years Sadik Fanie and I spoke about the effects of the slave history, racism, religious oppression and the forced removals under the Group Areas Act of the apartheid government on this community and the problems of poverty, substance abuse, violence and crime that form part of the lives of many of the families with whom I consulted. The stories told by Ebrahim Rhoda, who is researching the history of the Strand Muslim community, brought me some understanding of the history of this community. I was honoured to be invited to a special Heritage Day celebration in September 2003 where the historical photo exhibition which the community compiled as part of Ebrahim Rhoda’s research was put on view for the public. These photos tell the stories of pain and hardship, but also of a strong spirit of community, proud tradition and serious faith commitment of this community.
I have researched some of this work as part of an MTh through Unisa in 2002. The story of my involvement with this community has also been the focus of various papers delivered at conferences and in workshops locally and internationally. An American Muslim therapist, Salma Abugideiri, attended my presentation on the work in the Strand Muslim community at the Conference in Evanston, Chicago in 2003 and responded by writing a letter to Mr Fanie.
In September 2005 Sadik Fanie and Ebrahim Rhoda together with Jaco, my husband, and myself organised a Bridge Building Function where people of the Muslim Community and people of our community spent an evening together with traditional Cape Malay food, music, stories from the history and the photo exhibition. This function was sponsored by Johnella Bird who heard me talk about this community at a conference in Chicago in 2003 and who came to visit South Africa and the school in 2005. The proceeds of the function went towards the School Building Fund as this community has undertaken the realisation of a dream of better school facilities. (link to paper and MTh thesis?)
In 2002 Elizabeth Scrimgeour (CEO) and Fran Tong (Social Worker) of Drakenstein Hospice were part of a group of master students who received supervision and training from me. I have continued to participate with them in training and supervision as well as other consultation work for Drakenstein Hospice. This Hospice has a very high commitment to doing palliative care in the wider community. This involves a programme of home based care workers, volunteers, day care as well as palliative care by nursing sisters and social workers. As a result of poverty, unemployment, high incidence of AIDS and growing numbers of deaths the needs are overwhelming. Staff-members are often exposed to trauma and are over-worked and overwhelmed by the appeal for care and limited medical and social support resources. Apart from participation in training work I have been approached by the Board of Drakenstein Hospice to provide care and support for the professional staff at Drakenstein Hospice. This group meets with me monthly for de-briefing and care. I have also spent time with staff members in the communities that they serve in order to develop an understanding of the conditions of their work and to meet the people that they work with. Staff members can also consult with me in times of crises or personal struggles.
Butterfly House Project
In 2005 a group of family therapists from Trondheim, Norway visited the Drakenstein Hospice and Elizabeth Scrimgeour (CEO) shared with them the dream to build a day care centre in Fairyland, an informal settlement in a township in Paarl where care could be given to the more than forty children who are infected or affected by HIV. She told the group that the dream is to buy a specific piece of land and to call the centre Butterfly House.
On world Aids Day the Trondheim family therapy group spoke about their experience in South Africa at a memorial service in a church in Trondheim. The audience responded by holding a collection which was the beginning of a fund for the Butterfly House project. There was an article in the local newspaper in Trondheim about the talk on World AIDS Day and then big donors stepped forward. The money that was donated set the whole Butterfly House project into motion. The Hospice Board was approached and approved the project. The local branch of Round Table indicated that they would adopt the project and became involved and a board of directors, of which I am a member, was formed with various people from the community. Application was put forward to buy land; plans were drawn up, the money was handed over to me in June 2006 during a visit to the Trondheim Family Counselling office at a public meeting where I was able to speak about the work. A builder from Trondheim, Ivar Koteng, has offered to send his people to work on the building project. They will work with local people who will be able to apply for jobs and who will receive skills training through collaboration with the technical colleagues. Ivar visited Drakenstein in April and his words to the Board of Butterfly House were: “I am sending my people here, because ours is a rich country with small problems, they need to work in a country with big problems so that they will see what it is like and become better people.”
More about Butterfly House http://www.butterflyhouse.org.za/
I have assisted in the training of volunteers of the Hospice based in the community where I live since 1989. As a result of my involvement with Helderberg Hospice I have participated in the training of staff and volunteers at Stellenbosch Hospice, Drakenstein Hospice in Paarl, St Lukes Hospice in Cape Town and Tygerberg Hospice in Bellville. I also participated in teaching in the palliative care training programme as well as the training programme for bereavement counsellors. Topics that I have been asked to cover include: Counselling Skills, Communication, Death and bereavement in a family, Children’s response to Death as well as A Narrative approach to bereavement counselling and people living with life-threatening illness. Sue Nieumeyer, counsellor at Helderberg Hospice, completed her MTh-thesis entitled: Women storying HIV/AIDS in community, for the MTh at Unisa in 2002.
Kersboslaagte Primary School
In 2005 a pastoral therapy student, Estelle Raymond, has become involved with the counselling of and caring for six boys who have raped and tried to set alight a young girl on a farm outside of Paarl. They are pupils at Kersboslaagte, a farm school, and Estelle’s work there has developed into a project in which teachers, parents, members of the community, the Education Department, the public prosecutor and others have become involved. I act as supervisor and consultant to Estelle’s work in this community.
Two schools in Kraaifontein
Thérèse Hulme, a pastoral therapist who was a student with me in 2000, has been doing counselling work in Kraaifontein at Fanie Theron Primary School and is now also doing work at Petunia Primary School. Children at these schools live in poor communities with many social problems and staff at the schools often has to provide care and make intervention for pupils. I have been a consultant and support person to Thérèse in working with children who have been subjected to violence and abuse. This kind of work often has an isolating and traumatising effect on people who attempt to offer services. Thérèse Hulme wrote a thesis about her work with a group of teachers in Kraaifontein which was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the MTh –degree in Pastoral Therapy at Unisa, entitled: Transforming a school community: Facilitators living values.
Yvonne Barnard in Villiersdorp
Yvonne Barnard, a child evangelist, working in the Villiersdorp area ministering to the children of farm workers was referred to me with stress related problems. We have been meeting for therapeutic consultations for the more than six years. Over the years our conversations included looking at the effect of witnessing the poverty, violence, abuse, oppression and lack of services on the lives of the children and their families in the community where she works. I have acted as a compassionate witness to Yvonne’s life and work and have been supportive of her developing ways in which to empower the people of the community to assist her in ministering to their own, but also in developing their lives and improving it. I have been strengthened by the innovative ways in which Yvonne has managed to network within the wider community and thereby recruiting different people and organisations to assist her in her care and ministry. As a woman who grew up as the daughter of a farmer and owner of land I am particularly encouraged by the ways in which Yvonne has worked and lived in this community.
Concerned Parents of Missing Children
The work of this group of parents under the leadership of Michelle Olson of Mitchells Plain was brought to my attention by one of my students, Margot Brink. Michelle and Michael Olson’s son went missing in 1997 like so many other children on the Cape Flats and they decided to offer support to other parents who had a similar experience. They also assist the Police in forming networks to search for children who are reported missing. I have done some supervision with Margot when she was involved in supporting the Olsons with this work and also spent some time volunteering my services as counsellor and witness to the trauma of some of the parents. Margot Brink’s has completed a MTh (pastoral therapy) thesis entitled “Lighting his way home”: Pastoral Conversations with a missing child’s mother, through Unisa in 2003.
Community work of students
I encourage students to volunteer their services to community projects or individuals who cannot afford other services. In this way I have been the supervisor and consultant to various students involved in community work. When I visit them to witness their work and to meet the people that they consult with opens up new worlds for me. I am often forced to go into areas that I would otherwise consider unsafe to consult on problems that seem hopeless and almost unimaginable from my personal position as a middle-class person from a group that has been privileged all my life.
Helene Schoeman was involved in the therapeutic support of children, staff and parents at a school in Steenberg, one of the Southern suburbs of Cape Town, a coloured community. She reflects on this work in her thesis for the MTh at Unisa in 2003 under the title: Restorative Witnessing: A contextual and feminist praxis of healing.
Another pastoral therapy student, Lynn Wilkinson, worked at the Call Centre of the Western Cape Education Department and was responsible for trauma debriefing of children in the Mitchell’s Plain area where gang related violence, rape, assault, hijackings, bomb scares and abuse is part of everyday life. Lynn consulted me regularly for support and debriefing as well as supervision. She has recorded some of her experiences in her thesis entitled: Stories of survival in the wake of violence and abuse on the Cape Flats. This thesis was submitted in part fulfilment of requirements for the MTh in pastoral therapy at Unisa in 2002.
I also visited and supervised the work of Lucia Oosthuisen, Carin Marais and Yvonne du Toit in schools in coloured communities of Hout Bay, Ocean View and Idas Valley in the Western Cape. The themes of their clients’ stories often involve abuse, substance abuse, violence, poverty and neglect. This is very challenging work requiring both commitment and skill from counsellors.
Students at the University of Stellenbosch also used me as consultant to their community work. In the thesis for the M Ed (psych) Meryl Smuts describes her work with children who had been living on the streets. The title of her thesis is: Doing hope with children who have been living on the street. Chrissie de Vries wrote a thesis entitled: Marriages of a family living with HIV/AIDS and the researchers story about conversations with a family consisting of a grandfather and grandmother caring for their AIDS-infected and dying grandson after the deaths of both his parents to AIDS-related illnesses.
Nobuntu Matholeni’s work at PATCH
PATCH is an organization in Somerset West that provides services to children who had been sexually abused. I have been involved in this work through my supervision of Nobuntu Matholeni, a counsellor at PATCH.
FAMSA Western Cape
Since 2015 I have started collaborating with FAMSA by offering training at reduced rates for their counsellors who provide marital and family counselling in disadvantaged communities.
The Other-wise Initiative
Living and working in post-apartheid South Africa with one of the most democratic constitution in the world, unfortunately does not mean that the deep rifts that divided people in the past have disappeared. Despite the admirably peaceful transition to democracy and remarkable work done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission our society will carry deep scars of our racist past for a very long time. We have not become an integrated society over-night, racism and other prejudices live on in many people’s attitudes and action. Apartheid has been very successful indeed in keeping people of different races apart and it has been my experience that unless I actively and consciously seek ways to meet and spend time with people from groups other than my own, I will continue to live in ignorance of their lives, their histories, their cultures and their experiences. Over the years it has been mostly colleagues within the fields of psychology, social work and pastoral care who made it possible for me to form relationships and, in many cases, friendships that brought me some understanding of the experiences of people that I would consider “the other” in terms of ethical group, religion, social class, sexual orientation etc. Through my connection with them I started becoming “other-wise” and this other-wisdom contributed much to my ability to work in cultures and communities very different to my own.
In an effort to make this other-wisdom available to other South African colleagues I decided to consciously pursue ways of ensuring the participation of a diverse group of colleagues in the training activities that I offer. I have done this by offering special rates to colleagues from the groups that had been oppressed in South Africa in the past, but also to colleagues who work for organisations that provide services in impoverished communities or people living on the margins of society. In this way the voices of “the other” are represented in the discussions and sharing as we work with examples from our own lives and work contexts so that all of us gain from the diversity of experiences, values and beliefs that are represented by participants.
One of the oppressive practices of the apartheid regime has been the poor education opportunities and facilities that have been available to black people in South Africa. I have made a commitment to contribute to the transformation of post-apartheid South African society by participating in ways that might add to the redressing of the imbalance of power and privilege from which I, as a white South African have benefited in so many ways. One of the ways in which I hope to “do sorry” for the injustices of the past is by keeping fees for training activities as low as possible and by offering bursaries to participants who were part of oppressed groups in South Africa in the past.
I have been joined by others in this effort of including diverse voices in the training activities. The Institute for Therapeutic Development has been extremely generous in making bursaries available for the workshops organised for overseas trainers. Many of our colleagues from overseas have been accommodating regarding their fees or have donated their time in order to make training accessible to all participants. These workshops have enhanced our connections as colleagues and have strengthened us in terms of skills development.
The opportunity to become involved in “academic theology” came in 2001 when I became the supervisor of students of pastoral therapy for the Institute for Therapeutic Development. I took the opportunity to reflect on my own practice from a theological perspective by enrolling for the MTh in pastoral therapy (link to the thesis) through UNISA. I completed my research reflecting on the caring work that I participated in with the Strand Muslim community and graduated with distinction in 2002. I have become more familiar with the work of contextual and specifically feminist theologians and this has been extremely helpful in finding a voice for my own experiences and to develop frames of understanding for some of what I had been experiencing and witnessing. I continued my studies in Practical Theology at the University of Stellenbosch under the supervision of Prof Daniel Louw and completed my DTh (Practical Theology) with a dissertation entitled: Pastoral participation in transformation: A narrative approach and graduated in April 2012. Link to dissertation
The personal is the professional is the political
For many of us Narrative Therapy opened up ways of understanding our own position within the South African landscape. In the Narrative Therapy workshops and training we work with our own life stories and make an effort to work with the stories of discrimination and oppression (relating to race, poverty, gender, sexuality etc) on our personal lives in order to raise awareness that will benefit our professional work. We have been influenced by the work of the Just Therapy Group from New Zealand and many of us have become involved in advocacy work outside of our practices. We are convinced that being aware of gender-based violence (e.g.) and its effects on the lives of the women who consult us in our practices compels us to speak up against sexism and patriarchy in the wider society. The fact that Narrative Therapy is practised inter-disciplinary helps to break down professional elitism and contributes to richer discussions across disciplines and experiences.
Involvement in the leadership of the Dutch Reformed Church
In South Africa churches have been very involved in apartheid – both in justifying it and others in leading the struggle against apartheid. The contextual and liberation theologies that developed locally made a powerful contribution to the struggle for liberation. Liberation theologies arise out of the pastoral realities of oppression and repression, where people are hurt, stripped of their dignity, broken by deadly economic and political forces, left resigned or crushed. Theologies of liberation are critical of dominant power and structures in their contexts; this includes amongst others, race, gender and economic oppression. They state their preferential option for those who are poor, oppressed, marginalised or outcast. Theologies of liberation help Christians to understand liberating praxis and to find practical courses of action towards liberation. Its basic methodological characteristic is that it is ‘an inductive science ascending from the ground up. It does not start from basic principles and then draw conclusions from them.’
South Africans are deeply religious with 80% declaring that they are practicing in religious communities. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation report that, in 2014, SA’s indicated the highest confidence levels in religious institutions (67%) of all public institutions in the country. This high confidence was found across all racial groups. The influence of religion in informing popular discourse cannot be denied. Advocacy work from within these institutions remains vital.
Through my growing awareness of the powerful strand of prophetic, liberating thought within Christian tradition and particularly in the Bible, I have come to understand that God is calling me to counter racist, discriminatory and patriarchal traditions. As a psychologist who works with middle-class people and people from disadvantaged communities I am aware of the devastating effect of these oppressive ideologies on the lives of South African people and how religious teaching support many of these ideologies.
I spend a lot of my time and energy doing advocacy work within the DR Church – right in the midst of where the majority of my people, the white Afrikaners, still worship. This is neither an easy nor a comfortable call. In 2006, at the age of 49, I served in an office of the church for the first time. I served as an elder and became vice- and later chairperson of the church counsel of the Helderberg Dutch Reformed congregation in Somerset West, a leadership that is still male dominated. I was co-opted to serve on the executive of the Western Cape synod in 2007 – a step to redress the gender imbalance within the leadership structures – where six men and one woman were serving when I joined. In 2011 and again in 2015 I was elected on the executive of the Western Cape synod. I have been elected to serve on the Moderamen of the General Synod for the third term of office in 2015. The Dutch Reformed Church is struggling to transcend its racist past. The leadership is still dominated by men. Church unification is a long and complex process. In 2013 – 2015 I served on a committee of the General Synod tasked to advice the General Synod on same-sex unions. A decision was passed by the General Synod in October 2015 to ordain ministers who are in same-sex unions and to give ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church the option of blessing same-sex unions. I served as chairperson of the management team of the Season of Human dignity of the four churches in the family of Dutch Reformed Churches for two years.
The Walking Together group is an initiative that started in the DRC’s Helderberg congregation as proposed by the Season of Human Dignity. A group was formed to initiate and strengthen inter-racial and inter-denominational bonds through friendships and the sharing of stories about our contexts and past. Robust conversations about racism and white privilege have developed in this group. The group commits itself to become more involved in one another’s lives and to provide support and care across racial and economic divides.
During the COVID pandemic this group provided understanding of the ways in which the most vulnerable communities are being affected. An exchange of gifts and support has served to sustain us in this challenging time.
The Social Justice Agency (NPO)
I am a board member of TheSJA, a non-profit company that addresses racism and economic inequality.