Quaker Service in Cape Town, South Africa

Quaker Service, Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa, has reinterpreted the ancient tradition of alms-giving in the modern developing world. Taking in requests from social workers and others who deal with the needy, seven or eight Quakers who comprise this registered charity have for 25 years given small sums to help out in catastrophic situations. With no administrative expenses but postage and the telephone, and no formal fundraising, Quaker Service buys food and other urgent necessities, keeps children in school, and reunites families.

South Africa has many established and dedicated nongovernmental organizations, but gaps in services that do not cause great damage in industrialized countries leave clients in Africa on the edge of survival. Both in South Africa and elsewhere, the constitutions of nonprofits, to prevent corruption, generally do not allow cash handouts. In a country where poverty is not widespread, like the United States, a child burn victim may receive for free the hospital treatment her family cannot afford, but it is taken for granted that when she is well enough to go home her parents will transport her in a car. A South African child with burn wounds who is getting free treatment at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town may well come from a destitute family: kerosene heaters and candles are the ordinary yet dangerous sources of heat and light in the shacks of informal settlements. If the fire that sent her to the hospital killed her parents, or if it destroyed their home, she may have nowhere to go when discharged but to relatives far to the north: many indigent families have been split this way when young adults traveled to cities in search of work. Quaker Service’s mandate is to pay incidental expenses, but in the turbulent aftermath of apartheid and the general African economic slump, which is worsened by the aids epidemic, "incidental" can mean "life-saving."

A network of hospital social workers, police, teachers, and employees and volunteers in development organizations know Cheryl Barratt, who has spent more than two decades as the fund’s administrator. She collects requests for aid daily from an answering machine and dispenses small sums at her own discretion. Decisions on larger donations come to the committee, which meets monthly. Several committee members are active during the month, consulting with Cheryl and coordinating relief. Fundraising is similarly "as the Spirit leads," with the organization depending on word of mouth, private approaches to sponsors, and collections at Cape Western Monthly Meeting. The Meeting has many foreign visitors, who hear it announced that the heart-shaped Quaker Service metal box takes "any foreign currency, which is in fact preferred." A youth group visiting from Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia gave record-breaking amounts in July of last year, an event that makes a significant difference in a country where three large bags of groceries may cost only $10.

To learn the basics of how Quaker Service disbursements function, I went with Cheryl to visit a Black Sash advice office. Black Sash is an organization originally made up of suburban white women who stood in public places wearing black sashes in mourning for the constitution that the apartheid regime did away with. Its members developed a strong interest in the material needs of the black citizens the apartheid regime oppressed. Advice offices came to help, as best they could, people who were, for example, struggling to support families when pass laws made it difficult to work legally. Black Sash with its individually directed advice is a (much bigger) sister organization to Quaker Service with its individually directed donations. Black Sash channels to Quaker Service those cases in which a modest amount of money will solve part or all of a disastrous problem.

On the morning I sat in on interviews, I heard several cases of heartbreaking similarity. A breadwinner had lost a job, become disabled or died, and the dependent spouse remained unemployed. (South Africa has shed more than half a million jobs, mostly due to the pressures of globalization, since the first multiracial elections in 1994.) The small relief or entitlement funds available from government agencies or private provident associations had for some reason—often bureaucratic error or illiterate beneficiaries’ lack of knowledge of regulations—never materialized, and a family had for several years had only occasional income from begging or the informal economy. One woman with three children found that when she was widowed she could not obtain a widow’s benefits; her in-laws sought the money for themselves on the basis of African traditional law, which does not allow a wife to inherit. They backed up their claims with allegations that the woman had not been legally married—when the marriage began, apartheid law did not recognize African customary marriage. To get relief from a recent expansion of the law, the woman had to go to great lengths to obtain certification from tribal authorities where the wedding had taken place. As usual, completing every procedure took government departments months. (Another woman seeking help from Black Sash had applied ten times for unemployment insurance payouts she was entitled to, and ten times the paperwork was lost by officials.) Three years down the line, the woman has had to send her children to live with their grandmother in the country, giving her in-laws an opening to protest that she has abandoned them and does not need money for their support. She now has aids, probably contracted by prostitution she was forced into by her poverty. Now, with emergency relief, she could obtain medical care to prolong her life, or travel to see her children once more.

The independence from an authoritative, preconceived program, the expectant waiting, the responsiveness, and the acceptance of the limitations of human intervention that Quaker Service work demands seem inherently Quaker. George Stegmann, the present committee chairman and a retired member of the Centre for Conflict Resolution; George Ellis, who for many years has done Quaker Service work alongside anti-apartheid protest and then development advocacy; and Sadie Stegmann, who helped found Ons Plek, the Cape Town shelter for homeless girls, and whose friendliness with the homeless makes her Cheryl’s eyes and ears on the street—all say the same thing: we have found a way to help where no one else can.

Sarah Ruden

Sarah Ruden, a former attender of Homewood Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, and former resident of Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston, Massachusetts, is now a member of Cape Western Monthly Meeting. She is currently working on a political memoir of the new South Africa. She can be reached at sarah@zingsolutions.com.