Resilient, Resolute and Responsive
Although the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture opened in 1993, its roots rest in a history spanning 30 years of victim support offered by two key sectors of society. Churches and progressive health organisations played an instrumental role in the provision of psychosocial services to victims.
Cowley House, the home of the Trauma Centre, was originally built as a monastery in 1898 by an order of the Anglican monks who came from Britain to serve the people in the Western Cape. The monks were fondly called the Cowley Fathers named after the Parish of Cowley in Oxford, England. After serving the surrounding communities in Woodstock and Cape Town for 75 years, the Cowley Fathers left to continue their work in the Eastern Cape. The monastery was handed over to the Church of the Province of South Africa.
When the monks left in 1965, the building was unused until the early 1970s when the Western Province Council of Churches used as its offices until 1978. Since the treason trials in the 1960’s, the Anglican Church played an instrumental role in providing support to political prisoners and their families. It helped in establishing legal defence funds for political trials and subsistence grants for detainees’ families administered by an organisation called as the Dependent Conference. From 1978, Cowley House was used as a temporary home for the families of political prisoners visiting their family members imprisoned on Robben Island until the end of 1991. By 1990 when political prisoners were released, Cowley House hosted a Prisoners’ Reintegration Programme, a precursor to the Trauma Centre. The programme offered debriefing and support in the re-orientation of former political prisoners.
Progressive Health organisations
In the 1970’s after the shocking death of Steve Biko, there was a growing awareness among medical professionals that political activists were being tortured and that the medical establishment was covering up these political crimes. Progressive health professionals formed organisations to respond to the need to provide medical and mental health services to torture survivors. Consequently, the Detainees Treatment Team (DTT), the Organisation for Appropriate Social Service Group of South Africa (OASSA), the South African Health Workers Congress (SAHWCO) and the Emergency Services Group (ESG) were formed. Similarly, advocacy groups such as the National Medical and Dental Association (NAMDA) to fight for the health rights of all South Africans.
These organisations operated covertly under the threat of the Apartheid State. At the height of state repression during the state of emergency of the late 1980s, DTT, OASSA, SAHWCO and NAMDA formed a coalition, the Emergency Service Group (ESG) to facilitate training, counselling and medical services for former political prisoners. The Detainees Parents Support Group Committee (DPSG) and the Parents Support Group (PSG) continued to work in parallel but at grassroots level. The ESG was the core structure and concept from which the Trauma Centre eventually developed, conceived from a partnership with Church of the Province of South Africa (CPSA) and the South African Health and Social Services Organisation (SAHSSO) which emerged from the amalgamation of OASSSA, NAMDA, SAHWCO and Health Workers Society (HWS). Together, with the legacy of the Cowley Fathers and the CPSA, Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture (as it was called then) was formed. The name was taken from an article in a local newspaper, South. Years later, after much debate regarding the terms, victim and survivor, the organisation was registered under the NPO Act as the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture.
The Trauma Centre operated for six months before it was officially launched in 1993. The first staff appointments were volunteers who worked with ESG. Bea Abrahams was appointed as Executive Director and Glenda Wildschut joined the board of trustees as chairperson. Professor Leslie London also became a board member and later became a patron of the organisation.
Each decade of our existence has been marked by a major development which required the Trauma Centre’s expertise. During the first decade, the Trauma Centre played a critical role at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Glenda Wildschutt, chairperson of the board became one of the TRC commissioners. From 2004 – 2013, the main emphasis was placed on building strong relations with local and global partners. The organisation played an instrumental role in policy development within the field of torture prevention. Its rapid responsiveness to small and large disasters (such as Black Heath train disaster, xenophobia attacks in 2008) entrenched its reputation amongst government agencies and civil society as a leader in trauma-focused psychosocial services. As gang violence gripped the Western Cape and more recently the child murders, the current decade continues to build on the legacy of two decades of violence prevention interventions at grassroots levels.
The organisation continues to make a contribution towards strengthening emerging structures. To this end, the Trauma Centre played an instrumental role in the formation of coalitions, networks and non-governmental organisations. One striking example is the founding of Khulumani Support Group, a national NGO which sprouted from an intervention facilitated by the Trauma Centre. Today, our focus is on strengthening and partnering with community-based organisations to ensure that violence prevention is owned amongst other stakeholders but primarily by communities.
Violence prevention interventions
Building a nation of survivors has remained the key focus of the organisation. As South Africa’s political climate has changed, the post-apartheid era requires an ongoing focus on addressing social transformation. Inequality remains a key driver of violence and trauma. While torture remains the core business of the organisation, interventions dealing with cruel inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment (CIDT) is equally important. Survivors of hate crimes dominated trauma counselling services as the 2008 xenophobic violence raged in the Western Cape. Migrants remain a key vulnerable population in need of psychosocial support. Similarly, but to a lesser extent hate crime against LGBTQI community resulted in the Trauma Centre providing counselling to such survivors.
Gang violence which increased in the Western Cape influenced the community-based interventions offered. Consequently, as an organisation, the Trauma Centre has widened its interventions to include categories of violence not necessarily catered for during its founding years. Fewer survivors access the organisation for trauma counselling stemming from exposure political violence. However, the vast majority of the client base is generations of Black South Africans who either experienced apartheid or continue to bear the brunt of South Africa’s heinous past. As the country moves into a season of political instability, Trauma Centre will continue the legacy of our predecessors.
Current realities have influenced the organisation’s understanding of violence which is often viewed through the lens of the World Health Organisation – self-directed violence, interpersonal violence and collective violence. However, the growing gap between the rich and poor requires a review of how violence is defined. Structural violence is often ignored as a key driver of the trauma people experience in South Africa. In the decades ahead, we will interrogate the contested nature of violence focusing on both visible and invisible forms of violence.
The symbol of the tree is evocative of the organisation’s rootedness to the South African and African soil. It represents growth, transformation, hope and resilience of life. The bars in the insignia reveals the historic connection to Robben Island. It represents the resilience and vitality of life over repression. In essence, it captures the potential of rebirth and regrowth which encapsulates our mission statement.
The logo has evolved as the organisation went through its transition. Former political prisoner, Cecyl Esau who was incarcerated on Robben Island and later released in the 1990s arrived at Cowley House with other former political prisoners held the view that after the apartheid struggle, the country would experience a class struggle. During the first decade of the Trauma Centre’s existence, programmes focused on political violence. Clients were mainly torture survivors, political exiles, former detainees and children of political activists. Ten years after democracy, the political climate stabilised and the class struggle intensified. Other forms of violence emerged causing the Trauma Centre to include survivors of social and organised crime as beneficiaries.
The decades of the organisation’s existence are metaphorically linked to the life cycle of a tree:
The First Decade: Sprouting Years
1990-1992 Talks with local and global partners to establish a trauma centre for violence and torture survivors.
1992 A proposal is submitted to the Church of the Province of South Africa for Cowley House to become the offices of the Trauma Centre. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu plays a pivotal role in this regard.
1993 The Trauma Centre opens its doors at Cowley House on Friday, 2 July 1993 in the presence of the Danish Ambassador. Bea Abrahams (executive director), Thomas Winslow, Dr Terence Dowdall and Father Michael Lapsley are first employees appointed at the organisation.
1994 Trauma Centre trains volunteers as election monitors in police stations and prisons during the first democratic elections in South Africa. A report on the finding is submitted to the IEC and SAPS.
1995 The Royal Danish Embassy provides funds to renovate The Trauma Centre. A temporary location is found at Zonnebloem Estate and later, the church house at St Georges’ Cathedral. Trauma Centre co-hosts the VII International Symposium on Caring for Torture Survivors which attracted 300 delegates from 25 African countries.
1996 Queen Margrethe of Denmark reopens the Trauma Centre at Cowley House. Trauma Centre prepares for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.
1997 Former US First Lady Hillary Clinton inaugurates the Garden of Remembrance initiated to remember those who struggled for freedom in South Africa. Patrons, the late Ahmed Kathrada, and Kader Asmal, as well as Dr Patricia Cane, planted trees throughout the years in remembrance of freedom fighters. Executive Director, Nomfundo Walaza serves on the IRCT board.
1997-1999 The Trauma Centre provides trauma counselling services to Cape Town-based victims of apartheid who participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Board member, Dr Leslie London presented the Health and Human Rights Research Project’s finding to the TRC. Over the years, few survivors return for further counselling or as a family pilgrimage of their time spent at Cowley House.
2000-2002 At the start of the new millennium, the Trauma Centre draws on nearly a decade of expertise in the field of torture rehabilitation to inform its programmes. The Trauma Centre leads the drafting of the Robben Island Guidelines for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture in Africa which was adopted by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) in 2002. The drafting by a group of experts occurred on the Robben Island.
2003 The late President Nelson Mandela unexpectantly visits the organisation. He plants a tree in remembrance of those that died during the struggle for liberation.
The Second Decade: Sapling Years
2004 Following the October 2003 train accident where Trauma Centre provided trauma counselling services, the organisation becomes a service provider for the City of Cape Town strengthens its partnership with the organisation for rapid response during small and large-scale disasters. Military veterans continue to access the Trauma Centre for trauma counselling services and access to compensation.
2005 Former, Executive Director, Nomfundo Walaza leaves the organisation after 11 years of service, of which 8 years were spent as the director. Nomfundo took over the reins from the first executive director, Bea Abrahams in the mid 90’s. Erica Jacobs served as acting director in the interim. Trauma Centre offers CPD workshops to social work and counselling practitioners
2006 Princess Alexandra of Denmark visited the organisation for a report on torture survivors and refugees. Vimla Pillay is appointed as executive director handing over the baton to Valdi Van Reenen-Le Roux in 2010. The Trauma Centre continues to host is annual Anti-Torture Day.
2007 Military veterans receive participate in narrative therapy-based workshops such as body mapping, wilderness therapy in order to deal with their torture experiences
2008 The Trauma Centre becomes the lead agent drawing all other service providers together to provide trauma support to victims of the 2008 Xenophobic attacks.
2009 Trauma counselling services in schools including ECD intensifies and reaches more learning institutions as a critical intervention to prevent childhood trauma. The rural outreach programme extends to more communities. Trauma Centre becomes one of the founding members of the South African No Torture Consortium, a network of organisations working in the field of torture prevention.
2010 During the hosting of the Fifa Soccer World Cup, the organisation was prepared to support any traumatic incident requiring trauma response. One incident occurred involving a tourist. The Children and Violence Programme was affected by the change in the school terms. Trauma Centre trained SAPS VEP Volunteers to ensure readiness in the event of tragedies during the World Cape. Valdi Van Reenen-Le Roux is appointed as executive director.
2011 Trauma support and capacity building is offered to rural communities in the West Coast and Overberg. Counselling services are offered to learners, parents and teachers at 15 schools on the Cape Flats.
2012 The organisation introduces weekly trauma counselling clinics at schools in the Western Cape.
2013 The Trauma Centre becomes the lead organisation offering support to survivors of gang violence in Manenberg. The intervention funded through the Minister of Social Development, MEC Albert Fritz reaches over 6000 victims through information sessions, home visits and groups. The organisation celebrates its 20th anniversary.
The Third Decade: Maturing Years
2014 The demand for resettlement increases amongst refugees and asylum seekers as xenophobia continues in communities. Several businesses of clients are looted and destroyed. Trauma Centre strengthen its torture prevention programmes to assist
2015 Trauma Centre launches its research report, ‘Towards making psychosocial victim rehabilitation a reality: Meeting the needs of survivors of gang violence in Manenberg.’ The report used data collected from the interventions facilitated in Manenberg. It makes recommendations regarding violence prevention strategies in gang-affected communities.
2016 HIV/AIDS services are reintroduced at the organisation in an effort to improve holistic rehabilitation to survivors of gender-based violence. Trauma Centre contributes to the drafting of the Mexican Consensus at the IRCT General Assembly and Scientific Symposium in Mexico. The organisation joins another sub-Saharan Torture Prevention Centres in the Data for Fighting Against Impunity programme aimed at highlighting torture in Africa.
2017 A greater emphasis is placed on gender-based violence interventions. Life Skills intervention with women living in shelters for abused women continues to support women become economically independent. More staff are trained to offer HTS services to Intimate Partner Violence survivors. Child murder (in the Western Cape) data is collected and analysed. Over 100 children were murdered in the Western Cape. The findings prompt the organisation to lobby for a Provincial Commission of Inquiry into the lack of safety of children in the Western Cape. The organisation together with its peers meets with Premier Helen Zille, MEC Dan Plato and MEC Albert Fritz. The year closes with the Trauma Centre submitting a petition to the Western Cape Legislature. Trauma Centre becomes a founding member of the Child Protection Collaborative, a network of civil society organisations advocating for greater child safety and protection. Two submissions are drafted and submitted. Both submissions are aimed at strengthening child protection and safety.
2018 The executive director is elected as the chairperson of the Child Protection Collaborate and the deputy chairperson of the United Public Safety Front, both collectives aimed at improving public safety.