Notre Dame honors South African for humanitarian work

CAPE TOWN — The University of Notre Dame is awarding an honorary doctorate to a South African Jewish woman for her work in building South African community-based organizations.

Helen Lieberman, who founded Ikamva Labantu — Future of Our Nation — is slated to receive the award on Saturday.

With more than 1,000 current projects catering to more than 70,000 people of all ages, including 45,000 children, Ikamva Labantu is the largest nongovernmental organization of its kind in South Africa.

Trained as a speech therapist, Lieberman says she began her community work by accident.

Some 35 years ago she was working in Cape Town's Groote Schuur Hospital. She went into a nearby black township in search of a young patient who had been discharged after surgery, but whom she felt needed follow-up care.

Her shock at the living conditions there was the start of her deep commitment to the communities she now serves.

"I was all over the place," she said. "I worked anywhere there was the need."

From a small start in the worst of the apartheid years, she built up programs and endured risks, threats and harassment from the authorities, including the murder of some colleagues in the townships.

Activities expanded to include programs for youth, the blind, the homeless, the aged and the disabled. Skills development also became an integral part of her work, and there are educational programs for all ages.

Being Jewish was pivotal for Lieberman in her work.

"I did it because I am a Jew. This is what Jews do," she said.

"It's not about whether you are as kosher as you should be, it's about whether you live a life that extends itself to those less fortunate than yourself.

"To live in South Africa and see what you see — after the Holocaust and all the other things — and not to get involved, what have we learned?" she asked. "What example are we?"

Her work has been recognized both in South Africa and internationally, but Lieberman has given several of her awards to the women who have been with her over the years — the "mamas," as she affectionately calls them.