When Narratives create community: Working with diversity in the South African context

Evanston Family Therapy Centre 2003


1. Rites of Passage: Consulting room to community: “Innocence” to awareness and accountability

1.1 Awareness

At the beginning of the nineties dramatic changes were happening in our country which had the effect of robbing me of a lot of the “certainties” that had formed part of my everyday existence up until that point. With the dismantling of apartheid, exciting political events, such as the un-banning of the ANC as well as the release of Nelson Mandela from prison were reported in the news daily. Our country saw its first democratic election. Then came the stories told in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about people’s suffering under the apartheid regime (Krog 1998). 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 through being a member of the Dutch Reformed Church with its close ties to the National Party and through benefiting so much from the privileges I had taken for granted all my life. I resonate with the words of Denise Ackermann (1998: 91):

Despite the fact that apartheid as a system was successful in separating people, despite the fact that white South Africans were subjected to a great deal of ideological indoctrination, if we did not know it was because we chose not to know. Yes, we are born innocent and we become accountable.

Like never before, I became aware of the oppression, the injustices, the pain, the violence, the poverty and the crime. As I was bombarded with news of the suffering of the majority of South Africans, I questioned the work I was doing in my private practice that excluded so many people because of my fee structure and position within the privileged “professional world”. In what I now understand to be my response to the acceptance of accountability, I wanted to invite “the other” – the suffering and the marginalized – into my practice, donating my time and making myself available as best I could.

Yet another reality struck me. My training within the medical model, as well as the privileged and isolated life I had led as white South African, did not equip me for being effective in helping people from different cultural and social backgrounds. Swartz and Gibson (2001:39-40) refer to the ‘mechanistic and a-contextual tradition in many psychological theories’ as well as the fact that ‘most South African psychologists were white and trained to work with middle-class patients, from similar backgrounds to their own’ became extremely limiting to the application of psychology in the broader South African context. All my “expert” knowledge and years of professional training seemed to be useless. The complexity and extent of the problems seemed totally overwhelming! Suddenly I was experiencing the despair described as being:

[A] product of living with taken-for-granted privilege and its promise – of having access to the resources, to the opportunities, and to positions in structures of power that make it possible, in at least some domains of life, for therapists to achieve sought-after ends in a specified and usually brief period of time through singular and independent action.  (White 1997:197)

This notion of effective action is associated with an ethics of control that is accountable to ‘global’ norms and ‘universal principles’ and not to feedback from the person seeking consultation.

1.2 The separation: Narrative therapy and depression

I had been exposed to Narrative Therapy in 1992 when I attended a workshop by Michael White. From the start, the idea appealed to me that the client is the expert on his or her own life as well as the possibility of following an alternative ethic, one which White (1997:198) refers to as an ‘ethic of collaboration’ that recasts effective action as that which is taken in partnership with others. In joining collaboratively with people in multiple actions that contribute to people’s lives, the therapist becomes de-centred in the work. The therapist becomes more accountable to the person seeking consultation ‘in developing an understanding of the task at hand, in developing a consciousness of the contexts of persons’ lives, and in developing an appreciation of what it is that constitutes the preferred real effects of the therapeutic conversation’ (White 1997:199).

In 1997, when I could no longer ignore what was happening to me as my body kept telling me that something was wrong (Heshusius & Ballard 1996), I was diagnosed with depression. I started taking medication and took some time off. In my search for more appropriate ways of working I made the study of Narrative therapy a priority. I also broke all ties with my previous practice in order to reassess my own position as a therapist within the South African context.

1.3 The liminal phase: betwixt and between

 I started my “new” practice in 1999. This time I am working from home, hoping to be able to go out into the community without the pressure of financial “over-heads” to restrict me and to dictate the kind of work I become involved in. However, I was still very isolated from communities other than the one I was always working and mixing in. I was not at all sure that I really had anything to offer that people from disadvantaged communities would find valuable or that they would even allow me to become involved in their communities.

1.4 Seeking a connection

In my search for the next steps I visited the local School Clinic to introduce myself to the new school psychologist hoping for some connection with the wider community. Upon introducing myself as a private practitioner, Bridget Hamley-Wise, the school psychologist, confronted me with the statistics of the number of private practitioners in our geographical area catering for the relatively small number of paying clients as compared to the thousands of learners at the more than twenty schools for whom she had to take responsibility. Pillay and Lockhat (2001:87) confirm that an adequate number of psychologists will probably never be available to meet the needs of children in low- to middle-income countries such as South Africa.

I explained that I was hoping to donate time to work in the previously disadvantaged community and that I was ready if she had work for me. That very afternoon she phoned to tell me about a phone-call she had received from a principal in the community (previously described as “coloured”) who was very concerned about a group of boys who had been accused of and caught stealing on several occasions. With a pounding heart and trembling hands, I offered to join her the next morning to visit the school, ready for my crossing of ‘the great divide between the selective consulting room and the needy masses’ (Lifshitz & Oosthuizen 2001:121).

2. Working at the Muslim School with the boys who stole

2.1 So close and yet so far

Bridget accompanied me to the Strand Moslem School ten kilometers from my home in an area that I have never visited before. Mr Fanie, the principal, greeted us warmly and invited us into his small office. He told us about the problem with six boys, between the ages of ten and twelve, who had been stealing together since pre-school. He said that they had tried everything to help the boys, but concluded: ‘They are not afraid of punishment or the police. Nothing puts them off.’ He was concerned that this could be the beginning of gang activities and serious criminal careers for these boys. We decided that I would meet with the boys and their parents the following week to explain my involvement. There was no space for me to work at the school, but the Iqra Community Hall, a block from the school, was available as a ” consulting room”.

2.2 Working with a cultural consultant

While I listened to Mr Fanie I was struck by how well he seemed to know the children and their families. He also explained about his visits to shops, people in the community and the police station to talk on behalf of the children in an effort to help them. In my mind was the workshop of the Just Therapy group from Lower-Hut New Zealand (Campbell et al 1999) and their insistence that you need a cultural consultant when working in a culture significantly different from your own:

Because it (Just Therapy) is about meaning, professional therapists, when working with people from cultures significantly different from their own, are required to defer to key people from those cultures. It is these people who have been tutored in the cultural meaning patterns through their life experience; this knowledge cannot be taught in an academic institution.  (Waldegrave 1990:20)

I had a sense that Mr Fanie would be just such a key person to consult with regularly regarding the cultural meaning patterns of the families with whom I would work.

2.3 Children who steal

Excitement and fear joined forces to rob me of sleep. I searched frantically through all the Narrative Therapy literature I had and I stumbled upon a chapter by Seymour and Epston (1992), reporting their work with 45 children who had been stealing. They described ways of focusing on reputation rather than investigating the ‘truth’. I also bought into the idea that the task at hand was to regrade a child from ‘stealer’ to ‘honest person with a good reputation’:

By placing the advice for management of stealing incidents in a context of opportunity for the child to regain an ‘honest’ reputation, children, along with their parents, are offered a therapy of empowerment and dignity.  (Seymour & Epston 1992:203)

I now had ideas about working with choices about a “criminal career” or an “honesty career”, but was not at all sure about the steps to take so went into my first meeting just to meet the boys and their parents.

2.4 First meeting: Passing the buck

At the first meeting with the boys and four of their mothers I was struck by the state of the clothes of some of the boys. They were torn, either too big or too small, and often not in the colours of the official school uniform at all. The boys sat with bowed heads, waiting for the adults to speak. Some mothers had babies and toddlers with them and looked tired and troubled. As we sat in the circle I tried to find out their understanding of why the principal had referred them to speak to me. It turned out to be a confusing, passing-the-buck activity of: “It wasn’t me, it was him.” I heard detailed stories of each child’s innocence. Judging by what I heard that day, the principal had obviously sent me all the good guys by mistake! I realised that speaking in the presence of others made it very difficult for the mothers to voice their concerns. Instead, they became defensive and blaming of others. I asked if they would be interested in meeting me alone with their children at some other time: they were willing to do that.

2.5 Brief summary of their stories as I got to know them

In the sessions that followed, I asked questions about the “bad name for stealing” and how that impacted on their lives and the lives of their families. They told me how they often get falsely accused for things that disappear and other incidents of bad behaviour. Neighbours called them bad names, like “thief”. Everybody expected the worst of the boys e.g. a teacher asking, ”Have you come to steal?” when one of the boys walked past her classroom. The children told how they were excluded from activities like sport because they could not be trusted and there were fears that they will misbehave or get into trouble. The boys’ bad reputations also affected the parents, as their parenting were questioned by others in the community. The parents lived in constant fear of being phoned by the police. It wasn’t long before parents and boys agreed that a bad name for stealing was undesirable and was something worth changing.

They shared about their lives in a more open and trusting way. Seeing and hearing about the challenges these families were facing, filled me with sadness and fear for the future of the children. In an attempt to do justice to their struggle I briefly share some of their individual stories:

Dyllan and his younger brother live in foster care with his maternal aunt who is a single parent of one child. He was present when his stepfather murdered his alcoholic mother. His own father has been in jail since his birth.

Yusuf is the only son in a Muslim family and was named after his father. His father, who had spent fifteen years in jail, died of cancer the previous year. His mother struggles financially and his sister, her baby and husband who is a gangster, live with them. The substance abuse and criminal activities create a lot of tension in the family.

Marshall is the eldest of four children of whom the youngest is a baby. His father has cancer and receives a disability grant. His mother is unemployed. Both parents abuse alcohol and the children often don’t have food or adequate adult supervision and care.

Alie’s mother did not give me much information about the family. She came to the sessions regularly and seemed to want to ”cover up” his stealing, not wanting it to reflect badly on her or her family. She was often very angry and blamed the school and others for his behaviour and severe learning problems. Someone else informed me that an older child in the family was in a reformatory. When she could no longer deny the stealing she reacted with threats of severe punishment and violence.

Moosa was experiencing serious family problems at the time. His father was retrenched from a job he had had for twenty years. He was unemployed for a long time and put in jail for failing to pay maintenance of an illegitimate child. During that time the boy’s mother started an affair with the father of her eldest child. She was never at home and the children were neglected. At the time there was a lot of tension in the marriage as well as in the extended family.

Warren comes from a family where both parents abuse alcohol. When I met him his father was unemployed and his mother worked as a char one day a week. This boy has suffered medical problems from babyhood resulting in several operations. He has a serious speech defect. There were reports that adults from his extended family paid him to assist them with their criminal activities.

2.6 Participatory consciousness

In being with the mothers of the boys who had been stealing, the differences between them and myself were painfully obvious: me as white, middle-class and educated and they as women of colour, poor and with limited education. Yet my heart was equally touched by what we had in common. My son was then nine years old: I too cared deeply for his well-being and his future, like the mothers I met at the Muslim School. Like them, I feel implicated when he gets into trouble and I often lack the knowledge and wisdom to mother him in ways that will be beneficial to him:

It is in the space that exists between the having in common and the not having in common that the possibility for true dialogue can occur and the generative conditions for real listening, talking, and learning exists.  (Heshusius 1995:122)

This way of being with others does not allow much space for evaluative seeing. It is through being able to ask myself: “Could I imagine such a life for myself?” that I move into a state of merging, a state of consciousness which Heshusius (1994:209) refers to as ‘participatory state of consciousness’. She explains that this ‘opens up a mode of access that was not there before.’

2.7 David Epston visits from New Zealand

The complexity of the problems threatened to over-whelm me. Fortunately David Epston was visiting South Africa and when I told him about the work at the Muslim School he was very excited and immediately offered to consult with me. Our informal sharing led to a consultation with me in the Cape Town workshop. He gave a detailed account of the ideas and practices involved in his work with boys who got into trouble for stealing.

2.8 My struggle with self-doubt

David explained the plans of action in great detail and I was left with a well-studied transcript of our audiotaped interview. However, self-doubt had a great time spoiling things for me by reminding me that I was not David Epston and that these were his ideas, developed over time. Would I be able to do justice to them? He was bold, creative and experienced and had credibility in the community where he worked. In contrast, I’m a novice to this kind of work and a total stranger in a community of people who have a lot of reason to distrust me and I desperately wanted to prove myself. Besides, David seemed to refer to children from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. I was painfully aware of how poverty and crime was firmly entrenched in the community where I was trying to work. What if stealing was the only way for a child to find a meal? What effect does it have on children when their fathers and other family members have been participating in criminal acts?

David’s recommendation that we should involve a community of concern to assist each boy in getting back their reputations for honesty was accepted by Mr Fanie without any resistance. More appointments for the boys and their parents were scheduled.

2.9 Preparation for honesty meetings

This round of meetings was intended to prepare the boys and their parents for honesty tests. Facing the dilemma: ‘How can you ever know a person isn’t stealing? How do we actually prove it?’ David came up with the idea of an honesty test.

Again I met with each boy and his parents separately. Following the guidelines David Epston gave the conversations had the following focus:

  • Questions about the effect which the reputation for stealing had on the lives of the children and their families.
  • List of people who care whether the boy has a reputation for being a thief or for being an honest person.
  • List of victims.
  • Asking the critical question: Do you want a name for honesty or a name for being a thief?
  • Introduce the idea of a test. Invitations to the Honesty Meeting. The boy then helps to write letters to the people who would be interested in seeing him get his name back for being an honest person and inviting them to a special meeting where he would publicly declare his intent and the honesty testing would be discussed. In my session with Moosa and his parents I learned that his parents were filing for divorce and were unable to talk about much else. I decided to attend to their marital problems and his Honesty Meeting was postponed until such time that I was able to get their co-operation. During these five sessions lists of victims emerged, showing great overlaps that confirmed that the boys did a lot of the stealing together. They stole from family members, classmates, neighbours, shops, schools and welfare organisations such as the Society for the Blind and the Cancer Association. I also learned that Dyllan, Yusuf, Marshall and Alie were in the same class and their teacher, Mr Adams, was also the rugby and cricket coach. All the boys from his class put Mr Adams’ name on their list as a person who would want to see them change their reputations. I got the impression that he was a very caring person and was liked by the boys. There were five honesty meetings scheduled. I was very nervous as I was struggling to imagine whether we would get the people there. Many times in the past people had not come for appointments. By then, I had developed a habit of taking a blanket and some work along when I worked at the Iqra Hall, because I often had to kill time waiting for people who would arrive late or not at all. I also had ways of getting people to wait outside in the sun, as often everybody would arrive at the same time. I relied heavily on Mr Fanie to arrange appointments and to notify and remind parents. Sometimes he would get into his car to fetch the parents from their homes.

2.10 The honesty meetings of Dyllan, Yusuf, Marshell, Alie and Anthony

I was very relieved that we managed to have a group of people at each of the boy’s meetings. The staff from the school made a tremendous contribution to the meetings.

At each Honesty Meeting, I sat with the particular boy sitting next to me while facing a circle of family members, the principal, teachers and people who were invited. I interviewed each person in the circle about the effect that the stealing had had on them. Aunts and uncles expressed concerns for the future of the boys and reminded them of the hardships their families had had to endure as a result of the criminal careers of other family members in the past.

It is very important to note how the spirit of these meetings was different from the very first meeting I had had with the group of boys and their mothers. At that stage people had felt split and exposed through their loyalty to their families in the face of the accusations that had brought them together. Whereas now, in contrast, we had people meeting almost like a family and standing together in their concern and care for the boys, united by the hope of supporting each boy in his endeavor to the win back his good name. Although each boy had to face a group of people expressing concern, it was not experienced as humiliating, but as loving and supportive.

Dyllan’s aunt told him that his mother would have been proud of his excellent scholastic ability and the way he helped her with household chores. His aunt said that his mother was murdered because of alcohol abuse and mixing with criminals. She felt convinced that that was not the lifestyle Dyllan’s mother would want for him.

I was also able to evoke the memories of the deceased parents by asking family members what they thought these parents would have said had they been there that day. Yusuf, his mother and aunts cried as his aunts reminded him of his father’s suffering in prison. They spoke about how his health had deteriorated, eventually leading to his death. Yusuf’s aunts were again able to speak on behalf of their late brother, reminding Yusuf of his father’s special love and the hopes he carried for Yusuf’s future. There was much remorse, and many tears were shed as genuine concern for the boys was expressed.

Mr. Adams expressed sincere compassion with Marshell. He shared some of his own life story of being raised in that same community and struggling with poverty and limiting life circumstances. He challenged Marshell by saying: ‘I know that it takes guts to rise above such circumstances, I know you can do it.’

Alie’s father, who works as a caddy to golfers, said that he had hopes of his son becoming a golfer one day. Mr. Adams reminded Alie that he is a good rugby player who stood a chance of going to New Zealand with the school team.

Anthony’s meeting was not large. Anthony’s father came, together with his teacher, Mrs Baderoen, as well as Mr Fanie. Karl spoke about how, as parents, they were trying hard to help and improve circumstances at home. He encouraged Anthony and promised to get his aunt, who and also works with children, to speak to Anthony and to encourage him.

After everyone had had the opportunity to speak in each session, I asked the meeting what they would judge to be a fair time to give the boys to prove their innocence. There was about four months left until the end of the school year and it was generally felt that this would be a fair “test period.” I then turned to the boy next to me, took his hand and asked him whether he would give his permission to be tested for a period of four months to see if he could get his name for honesty back. This was a very serious moment and I urged each one to think carefully, as the test would be very difficult. They had to shake my hand to indicate their consent.

Victims were asked if there was anything that the boy could do to pay back what he had taken from them for example, to help with chores in the house or garden. A moving response came from a girl in Alie’s class, who said that she was afraid of him and his friends. She added that she doesn’t expect anything from Alie in return for the watch that was stolen from her, but she said that ‘he must stop stealing, swearing and fighting with other children – that will be enough pay-back for me.’

2.11 Honesty Tests

The boy then left the room and I explained the Honesty Tests to the meeting. They had to test, under very controlled conditions, whether or not the boy would steal again when given the opportunity. Immediately after a test he should be told that he had passed or failed a test and the news would be shared with others in the community of concern. They should then congratulate and honour the boy for his courage. In the case of stealing happening again the test period would start from the beginning.

2.12 Matching these ways of working with Muslim culture

 I asked Mr Fanie how these ideas fitted with Islamic practices. He seemed happy that it was appropriate. I was very encouraged when he referred a family member who had had trouble with stealing: his family then participated in an Honesty meeting with me. We spoke about it again recently and he told me about the practice of toubat which Muslims practice daily. He explained that you have to get the forgiveness of the person you have wronged first and only then can you ask God for forgiveness. When you have sinned there are three steps that are needed: you have to admit that you have done wrong; then you have to confess to the person you have wronged and get his or her forgiveness; and then you have to do a good deed to show that you will not do that bad thing again. He told me a story to illustrates the extent to which restorative justice is honored in Islam, making the work as proposed by David Epston a very good fit within this context.

2.13 The period of testing

I was touched to learn that Mr Fanie included the whole school in making public the commitment of Dyllan, Yusuf, Marshell, Alie and Anthony to undergo honesty tests in order to win back their good names for honesty. He made an announcement in assembly at school. As time went on, he also made announcements about their progress with Honesty Tests and congratulated them in front of the whole school. The four boys who were in the same class received tremendous encouragement from Mr. Adams, as well as from the whole class. He assisted the boys when they needed money and encouraged them to participate in sport. His influence was strengthened through his involvement with the rugby. The Muslim boys were also encouraged to attend Islam classes and Mr Adams spoke to Dyllan about attending Sunday school. He explained to me that, although it was a Muslim school, the children from other religions were encouraged to participate in their own religious activities. The four boys started monitoring and policing each other. I was thrilled to hear that members of a “gang” who had been accused of their bad influence on their members were now turning into an “honest gang” who was supporting each other to regain a reputation for honesty! I checked the progress by visiting and phoning the school regularly and writing letters of congratulations. I have to admit that sometimes I was too scared to ask about progress, as I feared the news was going to be bad. I found that the staff, who knew about my connection with the boys, would lay all sorts of complaints about their behaviour. I then had to remind them that my main interest was about their progress in regaining a reputation for honesty. They soon started reporting small successes and speaking more hopefully about the boys.After four months, three of the boys, Dyllan, Yusuf and Marshall had proven, without a shadow of a doubt, that they had deservedly regained their reputations for honesty. Alie had slipped a few times, but was still determined to work at a name for honesty. His test time was extended by another three months. Moosa and Warren were in big trouble as they became truant and were caught stealing on several occasions.

2.14 Honesty celebration

At a special assembly of all the pupils and staff, Mr. Fanie reminded the school of how Dyllan, Yusuf and Marshell used to spend many hours in front of his office in punishment for the trouble and stealing in which they were involved. He said that Dyllan had changed from a “trouble maker” to a “model child” who had not only changed his own life, but also helped his friends to do the same. He called Dyllan, Yusuf and Marshell to the front and congratulated them by saying that he knows that the tests were tough, but that he was impressed by their honesty. I could hardly recognise in them the troubled, angry and shameful faces which I had seen the first meetings: they now stood tall, looked me in the eye and shook my hand firmly. I presented them with their Honesty Certificates which they received with broad smiles and nodding heads. The staff and pupils applauded. My eye caught Alie’s eye, as he was standing on his toes in his line with an eager expression on his face. I then told the school that this was not a small achievement. Of the five boys who had made a promise to become honest, only three had succeeded. I added that while two of the boys I had met six months earlier have almost given up on school altogether, there was Alie who was still trying hard: I hoped to hand him his certificate in the next year. The three proud boys, and some of those who cared about them, celebrated with tea and cake. Mothers and aunts and sisters laughed and talked while we poured tea and served cake. Although shy and a bit overwhelmed, Dyllan, Yusuf and Marshell basked in the glory of praise and congratulations from staff and family members. They were very pleased when there was enough cake for them to take home and to their class to share with their classmates. Mr. Fanie and Mr. Adams commented on the boys’ transformation by saying that they have gained a completely new sense of self, becoming confident and positive about their lives in general.I kept in contact with Mr Fanie about Alie’s progress and heard that he was never caught stealing again. Although he was struggling with schoolwork and got into trouble for rudeness and aggression from time to time, by March we felt convinced that Alie had succeeded in regaining his reputation for honesty. I took him a certificate so that Mr Fanie could present it to him.

2.15 Witnessing, public acknowledgement and consciousness raising

In the work at the Muslim school I was constantly aware of my position as witness to the lives of the people whom I met. In the community where I live, the life and work of the people of the community ‘on the other side of the road’ is fairly invisible, largely as a result of our apartheid history, but also as a result of differences of class, race and religion. In an effort to promote visibility for this community and hoping to recruit the involvement of others in helping where there seems to exist such an overwhelming need for resources, I have shared the story of my involvement with the school with various groups of people. I take great care to do this sharing in a ‘decentred way’ (White 1997:99) while sharing the impact of what I have witnessed on my own life. I am always very committed to expressing what I appreciate and the things that I want to acknowledge and honor about the people at the school. In Narrative therapy the practice of Outsider-witness audiences (White 1997:101) taught me a lot about the value of acknowledging the developments that speak of people’s preferred ways of being in the world through reflecting on that. This contributes to a richer description of the lives of people who struggle with difficult problems, a description that often forms part of the counterplot of their life stories in the face of the problems that sometimes try to overwhelm them (White 1997:102).The first group that I shared the story with was the members of a Rotary Anns club in our community in a letter asking them for sponsorship for Mr Fanie, the principal, to attend the South African Association for Marital and Family Therapy Conference. This would not only enable him to learn from and network with colleagues, but would also enable him to witness the telling of the story to which he had been an important participant.I quote from the letter: Obviously I’m very pleased about the positive outcome of this work for these boys, the school, their families and their community. More than that, however, I’m moved by the way my own life has been enriched through my involvement with this school. I worked very closely with Mr Fanie, the principal, and was touched by his sincere caring for each of the boys. He knew them and their families well through taking the time to talk to them, sometimes getting into his car to fetch them or to speak to them at their homes. He arranged all appointments for me and made sure that everybody (sometimes up to twelve people at a time) was present at the meetings. He totally supported every “weird suggestion” I made and gave his full co-operation. I was impressed by the way he understood the process (not your normal, regular counseling, I can assure you) and participated, no matter the time and effort involved. The spirit of community and caring in that school where many children come from homes where poverty, crime, violence, abuse and death form part of everyday life was remarkable. The staff members I met and worked with demonstrated the same concern and love for the children. I soon stopped noticing the limited facilities and lack of space as I started to enjoy the warmth of the people of the school.My involvement and work at the Strand Moslem School did not end with the work I have described. I continued with consultations and assistance over the past three years. As time went on I got to know Mr Fanie better. He provided me with literature on Islam and introduced me to Imam Saban of the Muslim Judicial Council. Mr Fanie also shared some of his childhood memories and the history of his people and the school with me.

3. The History of the Strand Muslim Community

3.1 Slaves from East Africa, Madagascar, Indonesia and Malaysia

 When the Dutch settlers arrived in 1652, the Cape was populated by groups of herders known as the Khoi. As the Khoi did not want to give up their independent way of life to work for the settlers and the Dutch East India Company forbade its officials to enslave the local people, the settlers began importing slaves from East Africa, Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent or the East Indies (Indonesia and Malaysia). Thousands of their descendants were born into slavery at the Cape (Bickford-Smith 2001:15-16). Although law restricted Islam during the period of Dutch East India Company rule, Muslim slaves, prisoners and political exiles still practised the religion in the Cape.

3.2 A childhood in Market Street

Some of the slaves ran away and settled along the coast where the Strand is, living as fishermen off the sea. Later some settlers had farms near the Strand and when the slaves were freed in 1834 many of the slaves settled in the area, making a living from the sea. The community was essentially a fishing community. Ebrahim Rhoda, the previous principal of the Strand Moslem School is currently researching the history of the Strand Muslim community. He shared these old photos with me.

Mr Fanie seems to remember with great fondness his childhood in Market Street before the forced removals. He said that it was a time of tolerance and respect for differences. Christians and Muslims lived together in the same street and all the children played together. In the time of the fast the Christian mothers would not allow their children to eat in the presence of the Muslim children. When it was time for prayers one would sometimes hear a Christian mother calling: “Come inside – it is time to pray. You should not be on the street now.” She would then send the Muslim children to the Mosque. At Christmas time all the children, Muslim and Christian, would sit under the tree and sing carols together.

The Centre for Popular Memory of the University of Cape Town has compiled a book (Field 2001) in which they have recorded the memories of people who have survived forced removals in the Cape. A common thread running through these oral stories is the sense of neighbourliness and community spirit. Poverty and the shared experiences of day-to-day hardships brought people together in many ways.

Le Grange (2001:109) explains that memory is partly informed by place and continues that ‘in these remembered urban districts the street was the major public space – a space for the reproduction of social relations’. It was the place in which resident’s identities were confirmed and where they could pronounce their sense of belonging. The street and their associated corners were the places of gathering, of crooning, of meeting friends and even sometimes gambling. With these associations these streets become an integral part of the memories of displaced residents.

3.3 Nationalist party and apartheid laws

In 1948 the Nationalist Party took over the Government. Between 1949 and 1953 the apartheid laws were passed. The Population Registration Act of 1950 officially divided South Africans into four groups: Whites, Coloureds, Asians and Natives and required them to register accordingly. There were even “race inspectors” appointed to decide difficult cases. This opened the way for more complete segregation in the Cape. Marriages and relationships between black and white became illegal according to the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Act of 1950. Other laws aimed to segregate schools and universities, political organizations, buses, trains and taxis, ambulances and hospital wards, sport and music, restaurants and theatres, parks and beaches, benches and public toilets, libraries and post offices, even graveyards. The Group Areas Act of 1950 aimed to stop mixed residential areas in South African cities. From 1951 the government took control of all property transfers and changes of occupancy that went across racial lines (Bickford-Smith 2001:15-16).

Over the next 25 years nearly four million people were uprooted, many of them several times over, in pursuit of the policies of apartheid. The Cape’s liberal tradition and the relatively high coloured population all meant that, though economics produced segregation of a kind, when it came to working class areas in particular residential patterns were characteristically integrated. These were the areas which were torn apart as proclamation after proclamation declared white or coloured (mostly the former) forcing other classifications of people out (Mc Eachern 2001: 226).

Of this event and his personal experience of it Mr Fanie says:

Surely one of the events that hit me, personally, the hardest was when we had to move. The way in which people lived in the Strand, the community, the mutual respect whether you were Muslim or white or non-white…I feel that all of those beautiful things that we struggle to accomplish in South Africa were broken down then. You know what happened with our people? Within the first ten to fifteen years…I would say that about 80% of our elderly people died and I suspect the reason was that they could not come to terms with the move. There were so many old people then, sometimes we had two to three corpses a week. The conditions in which we had to live were terrible. You got houses without ceilings, without floors, the toilets were outside, there were no storm water pipes, no sewage, none of that, one tap outside the house, no bathroom and so on. That is one of our things…it is very important to us, to any person…

It was only later that the full implication about not having a tap inside the house of a Muslim family hit me. As I read about the ablution rituals that precede the salat (prayers), I realized that ‘a full bath by means of running water is required after marital relations, seminal emission, and the termination of menstruation or post-partum bleeding’ (Haneef 1994: 137).

I wrote in my journal after the interview:

Visited the School for interview with Mr Fanie. It was very, very difficult for me, came home and went to my bed where I sobbed my heart out. I was particularly haunted by images of, what he describes as the ‘the worst day of my life’ when they were removed from Market Street in the Strand in accordance with the Group Areas act. It was terrible to hear about the horrible circumstances they had to live in and how their old people died because this was so difficult.

3.5 The school: Resistance and community

Mr Fanie shared with me the history of the school. I find that it is well explained as documented in Strand Moslem Primary School 2000:

The school was started in 1928 by a group of Muslim women, who saw the dire need for an institution, which would have Islam as its foundation. This was a direct result of the government’s Calvinistic practice of enforcing Christian National Education as a policy in all government schools. Muslim pupils were coerced into receiving religious studies solely on Christianity, and were also expected to attend assemblies conducted in the same religion. The community, which has a proud track record of resisting forced alien practices by authorities for over 300 years, once again rallied to the idea of establishing it’s own institution. This would enable and ensure that the community’s children would be instructed in a doctrine of it’s own choice.

The school did not fulfill the role of an education institution solely, nor was it a symbol of defiance, but played out its role as a center of excellence, a focal point for cultural and social activities and a catalyst for community pride and hegemony. It was also a vehicle through which the Muslim community of the Strand voiced their utter repugnance against the system of discrimination, social injustice and religious intolerance.

There are 700 learners in the school at present, of which between sixty and seventy are not Muslim. The school does not turn any child away who applies at the school. The teachers are mainly Muslim. When the Muslim children go to the Mosque, the other children are supervised in a classroom: they are not forced to participate in any of the religious activities.

4. Community work

4.1 Success and Stealing Problems

The story of success was quite strong with four of the six boys receiving honesty certificates. It was disappointing to find out, three years later, that Yusuf, who had received a certificate, was in bigger stealing trouble than ever and that the poverty and hardship of his family life has overwhelmed Marshell to the extent that he has dropped out of school altogether. Although he had lost contact with Achmat and Anthony, Mr Fanie had reason to believe that life was also difficult for them. As Mr Fanie started reflecting on the lives of the boys three years after the therapeutic work with them, he expressed distress and sadness pointing out that the family and life circumstances of the children seem to have a powerfully adverse effect in the face of the effort everybody had put in. I sensed in him what Welch (1990:70) describes as: ‘One of the most painful aspects of an ethics of risk is knowing that “it is much, much, much too late” and continuing to mourn the loss, continuing to rage against the innumerable onslaughts against life.

 4.2 Poverty and its symptoms

In South Africa we are still grappling with the legacies of apartheid. Violence and crime has had a tremendously negative influence on all our lives. The criminal violence is described as ‘a new tyrant’ that is loose in our country. Poverty, displacement and ruptured family lives are still the social reality for scores of people. At least 15 million out of our country’s population of about 40 million people are very poor – jobless and illiterate (Pieterse 1998:179). Children’s lives are put at risk with those of adults through insufficient and diminishing resources in education, social security and health.

I was very aware of the high incidence of unemployment, substance abuse, family violence, delinquency, illness, family disruption and poor housing that the boys and their families had been subject to. Waldegrave (1990:23) makes it very clear that these problems are in fact ‘symptoms of poverty’. According to Waldegrave (1990:25), therapists can convey significant political and socio-economic information and meaning to people, commending them for their ability to survive amidst difficult circumstances.

Holding onto the hope I started questioning Mr Fanie about some other aspects of the work at the school. We spoke about the way in which we have been able to help children with special educational needs.

4.3 Special educational needs of the children

It is well-known that sustained periods of poverty can have marked effects on children’s cognitive development As a result of malnutrition, many of these children manifest either mental retardation or specific learning disabilities but, because of a lack of services, they are usually not appropriately diagnosed and/or helped (Pillay & Lockhat 2001: 90). As a result of what I observed, I offered my services and have been involved in assessing children at the school who are not progressing scholastically and assisting in making recommendations regarding the best educational options and interventions available to them. Mr Fanie thought that quite a few children were helped in this way.

4.4 Accountability

Then we started reflecting on the way in which we managed to work together despite ethno-cultural and religious differences. In this conversations, Mr Fanie commented:

Sometimes I feel that the problems are so much part of our existence and we have to deal with it on our own, nobody on the outside really cares. Especially if we think about where we have come from, thinking about apartheid, that made it significant for me that someone from the other side of the road became involved and made a contribution. I have to admit that I had doubts in the beginning about how and what you intended and what your motives were….

We did not even reach out to you; you came of your own accord and offered your availability. I saw that this was not a woman who wants to impose her ways and her ideas and prescribe to us, pointing out what we have done wrong and saying: ‘This is how you should do it, because this is the way we do it in my community.’ I never got that impression from you. Your approach has always been: ‘Mr Fanie, you are struggling with this problem.  How can we tackle this?’ I saw a person who was prepared to help, but who also asked us what our needs were, what our ideas about interventions were, what would work better and how we would perceive things. That has been your attitude right throughout.

I am deeply grateful that Mr Fanie noticed and valued the fact that I was very careful not to approach the work from a top-down position – imposing my ideas on them. In a power-sharing, collaborative approach to therapy, the therapist adopts a ‘not-knowing’ position in which the therapist relies on the explanations of those he/she consults with (Anderson & Goolishian 1992:29). I tried to take care to be accountable to the people of the community in everything I did, keeping in mind:

In essence, accountability is about the building of trust with the group with whom trust has been broken. Therefore accountability in such a process is not about a simple reversal of roles in the hierarchical sense. It is an offering of vulnerability in trust to each other, so that the pain of injustice can be transformed.  (Tamasese & Waldegrave 1994:66)

I could sense the hope growing as we were speaking and reflecting, choosing to define ‘success’ in ways that would honour all the participants’ efforts and resilience in the face of the odds against us rather than giving in to despair.

4.5 Learning from rather than learning about

Within the Muslim community I encountered people who seemed to know how to retain their identity while welcoming me, the stranger, and making me at home. I hate to admit it, but for a long time I equated Muslim people with ‘potential rivals’.

The equation of otherness with opposition is a dangerous fallacy because it has effects on truth. To the extent that it is believed, it shapes the relationships between nations and peoples. To see the other as potential rival is to overreact to the normal tensions of any relationship. It makes it all too easy to assume that in any conflict only one faction can win. This belligerence and defensiveness makes mutually satisfying resolution difficult and transforms difference into alienation and conflict.  (Welch 1990:35)

Assuming a position of real interest to ‘learn from’ rather than to ‘learn about’ (Bronstein in Reinhart 1992:264) made it possible for me to form connections and create community. I was surprised to learn about the similarities between Islam and Christianity. The spirit of community and commitment to their faith that the people whom I came into contact with lived and practised inspired me. Through our community I have learnt more about the ethics of risk as Sharon Welch (1990:35) describes it:

The chaos of interdependence can be viewed as itself positive, as the fertile matrix of human creativity, leading to richer political and intellectual constructions as the insights and needs of various groups are fully taken into account.

4.6 Story and Memory as part of healing and care

Mc Eachern (2001:223) writes about the ‘enormous significance of memory in South Africa today.’ The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is probably the most obvious and visible manifestation of the significance of memory, publicly engaging the apartheid regime in terms of its oppressive strategies and human rights violations. The importance of these themes of remembering for the understanding of both the present and the future also emerges as a central problematic in the lives of ordinary South Africans who are striving to come to terms with what was done to them. ‘They demonstrate the profound ways in which all kinds of macro-processes take form and power in the lives of people at the most micro-levels’ (Abu-Loghod in Mc Eachern 2001: 224). One such story of remembering is that of the Muslim community of the Strand as told by Mr Fanie.

It was through joining the telling and re-telling of narratives that I experienced the hospitality and community most. Through reading about the history of slavery and listening to the memories of the pain inflicted upon the Muslim people of the Strand through oppression and the evil apartheid system I became more and more aware and accountable. For me the responsibility of remembering the past and seeing the horrors of the present was not borne lightly. Welch (1990:93) points out that ‘the healing possible for all of us, collectively and individually, lies in the recognition that although there is a way through there is no way out.’  How can I care if I am not prepared to listen to the memories of pain and to accept responsibility?

Conclusion: The reincorporation phase

Reflecting on this work I realize that I am describing the risk I took in migrating from ‘innocence’ to ‘awareness’ and ‘accountability’ (Ackermann 1998). I have come to the reincorporation phase and a ‘fit that provides for [me] a sense of once again being at home with [my]self and a way of life’ (White 2000: 27). My exposure to this community and the collaboration with the Muslim people has strongly influenced my participation in other projects like the work of Hospice where we face the Aids pandemic in South Africa. Through sharing some of my learning and encouraging my students at the Institute for Therapeutic Development to become involved in community projects I have been able to extend my participation to other communities in need.  By including people from different communities in my private training programmes people who have been historically separated share their stories and learn to work respectfully in cultures different from their own. It has been my experience:

 ‘Healing praxis, clearly a need for victims of apartheid, also promises healing for the white community.’   (Ackermann 1998: 83)

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