Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust is the world’s oldest surviving rape crisis centre. For over 40 years, it has not stopped operating even through the direst funding emergencies. Board member Pam Sykes spoke to director Kathleen Dey about what continues to make Rape Crisis tick.
One thing I’ve noticed about Rape Crisis, which isn’t always obvious from the outside, is the fierce loyalty people have to the organisation. What makes it such a rewarding place to work and be part of?
I’ve always enjoyed Rape Crisis because of my complete freedom to move within the organisation. When I arrived here in 1996 our time was never policed, because we didn’t have a boss; we operated as a volunteer women’s collective. We definitely held each other accountable but I had enormous freedom to practice my professionalism as a social worker. We had freedom to play with our ideas, extend our skills and explore new territory – and that is accepted as part of the collective by everybody, to this day. People are able to try things here that they wouldn’t have the freedom to experiment with in another organisation.
Where does that freedom come from?
I think it comes from the fact that we’ve always been making it up as we go along. We were started by a woman, Anne Mayne, who had very little idea what was going to happen; she just knew that there had to be a way for women to support each other and for rape survivors to find genuine empowerment. I think that is perfect, the fact that she was an ordinary woman doing this extraordinary thing. She didn’t have any sort of professional background, she didn’t have any preconceived ideas, she just tried – and to her surprise, it worked! She put up an ad for a meeting in a shop and four other women arrived. They met in each other’s lounges and they talked, and I imagine they drank a lot of wine, and eventually this organisation grew from that. People just had to keep trying because there wasn’t a blueprint, there wasn’t an existing institution anywhere that said this is how you support rape survivors – it was new. We’ve been doing this for forty years now, longer than anybody – we are the oldest rape crisis left standing in the world today.
How did that collective, playful, supportive, collaborative ethos survive the financial crisis you experienced in 2012 and the turnaround that’s enabled you to keep going?
Some people feel that it hasn’t, you know! But I think it’s because it’s so precious to us, even though we would probably all describe it in different ways; to me it’s freedom. When I think about women’s liberation, I remember when I was about eight or nine years old, reading the newspaper with my parents in their bed, and my mother read out an article about women in America burning their bras. She was delighted, absolutely delighted; and she used this phrase women’s liberation – it was a big thing for her. So I think I’ve always been interested in the search for personal freedom. Once you realise that you can transform yourself, and that your personal transformation has a knock-on effect and helps others who are on a similar journey, then you start to feel a sense of liberation. Liberation starts to emerge as you work at transformation. And so maybe, hopefully, there’s a little sparkle of that in Rape Crisis.
Of course there is frustration and people feel horribly trapped at times – but that’s part of the journey, isn’t it? You’re not going to feel liberated unless you’ve knocked up against the cul de sac and stood there and thought to yourself, “there is just nowhere to go!” And then you have to find a way out of the box. There’s a lot of out of the box thinking at Rape Crisis.
I think we’re quite disturbing, actually. We sit in stakeholder engagements and we’ll say something unconventional, and people will respond “That’s not the right thing to say here! You guys are so critical!” And the thing is we are critical. Because people get it wrong, and the fact that they’ve gotten it wrong is so bad for rape survivors that we will never keep silent about it.
Can you give an example?
Sometimes people want to tell rape survivors what to do – that they must report their rape to the police, for example. Actually, it’s totally their choice. Who says it’s a good idea? It could be the worst idea in the world for some rape survivors. We believe in giving survivors enough information to be able to make an informed decision, because decision making is one of the most restoring processes after having all choice removed from you by the rapist.
So the healing is about restoring agency?
Yes. And a lot of people are quite controlling of survivors in the services that they offer – it’s a natural reaction to the helplessness that you feel in the face of rape. So we just come along and tell them they’re doing it wrong. And we never tell rape survivors what to do. Part of our model of counselling is that we accompany survivors; we walk next to people on their healing journey and say, “Which way do you want to go? Here is a map, but you are always free to try another route.”
So that’s asking every single person “What does recovery look like for you? What does liberation look like for you?”
Yes. How fast or how slowly do you want to go? And constantly taking the pulse of the organisation, on that note, is my job, and the Board’s job. I really value the minds that I work with, both inside the organisation and outside, who are walking this journey with us.
So why is it so difficult then to take the Rape Crisis model, that says we accompany people on a journey that they have to make for themselves — why is it so hard to replicate that?
I suspect because it’s a boutique model. It pretty much takes 40 years to get there! By boutique model I mean that it takes enormous amounts of time and care, extraordinary attention to detail, crafting and re-crafting and polishing until you get it right, and never really feeling like you have. It’s an art, you know, and that’s not a blueprint that you can franchise.
Although having said that, we are exploring that option! We are trying to build a replication strategy. We’ve just received funding for a programme that will allow us to mentor emerging organisations and see if we can replicate our model. That little sparkly thing – can it be communicated, can it be transmitted and can it work its own magic in another organisation?
Because if Anne could do it – and she was following a model that said ordinary women can do this – then it should work. You could be a woman in a shack in Masiphumelele or Imizamo Yethu and you have three or four friends who feel the same way you do, that victims of rape have nowhere to go. So you’re going to start meeting every two weeks in somebody’s place and you’re going to talk about how you would do this. The first thing you would need is a telephone; you just need a cellphone, and to get that number out there via word of mouth and a couple of flyers, and maybe a notice in the local police station. And your phone will start ringing, and it will never stop.
Then once there are ten of you and you’re starting to feel a little bit overwhelmed and helpless, you’ll need a training course. That very first Rape Crisis training course they made up from scratch, you know, although there’s a standardised course now. But it’s inevitable, working with a group of people who are interested in transformation and liberation, that they will all mix their own extraordinary, unique ideas, talents, emotions, into that course and cook up something splendid.
So how important is the way Rape Crisis works as an organisation – that liberated sparkliness – to the kinds of services you deliver and how you deliver them?
It goes through the vehicle of the training course. It’s based on a technique called Training for Transformation that goes right back to the 1970s, to that time of women’s liberation. And it’s really simple, it says you sit in a circle and you share; there’s no expert standing up in front of the room writing on the whiteboard. And in the beginning you listen carefully to what every person says about their expectations, and you stick them up on the wall so that everybody can see them, and you train to those expectations every minute of the course. It’s very experiential, with small groups and intimate discussions, and it creates incredible personal trust between people.
People do sometimes have to be let loose from the training course in a state of dishevelment and disarray, because we have to face things that are frightening and painful. And that’s not a bad thing, because you have to find out whether you could facilitate someone else’s transformation in a counselling process by going through it yourself first. We can’t have people who are vulnerable to the occupational hazards of burnout and vicarious trauma, because vicarious trauma is a reality – one has to read a lot of what goes on at Rape Crisis through that lens.
So is it fair to say that to be a rape crisis counsellor you have to have a certain toughness?
It’s detachment. You have to be detached from the outcomes as opposed to being detached from the person — and some truly empathetic people are very, very attached to the healing of their clients, to the point where they become slightly domineering. So you need both a degree of empathy and a degree of detachment. You can wish for a rape survivor’s recovery but you cannot make it your goal.
Because it’s not in your control?
No, it’s in hers. You are just going to put the right conditions in place around her, one of which is your way of relating to her.
So it occurs to me that that same kind of detachment – and toughness, actually – is what’s needed to make an organisation that’s this democratic work. Because people think a democratic organisation is a kind of soft, touchy-feely, group hug environment…
… no. No!
So you need to be quite tough.
Oh yes. God, you will get confronted on your whiteness, on your privilege, on your status, on your education, on your everything basically. “Who are you to run this organisation? Can you see that your blindness to your own white privilege is causing things to go down the wrong path? Have you stopped to think about what we might have lost as a result of just blindly adopting this model?” And I get furious, I get indignant, I get hurt; I think “do you really imagine I didn’t think about those things?” And then I stop and I realise… well, did I really? And if I thought about them, didn’t I do so on my own terms, from my own perspective? Can I really think from the perspective of a very, very poor woman living in a shack in Khayelitsha? No, obviously I can’t. And by the same token I therefore cannot be a champion of the poor and oppressed, because I’m not. But I can certainly listen to those who do champion those perspectives — although I also have to be able to draw a line when people are just causing shit because they are suffering from vicarious trauma, basically, and they are angry and they need someone to blame and it’s me. So you’re trying to balance on a line in the ash, really.
So Rape Crisis is a non-hierarchical organisation but it still has a clear hierarchy?
Definitely! Donors would never, ever tolerate an organisation that didn’t have a buck that stopped somewhere. They have to have an ultimate authority that they can hold accountable.
And would Rape Crisis need that structure if the donors didn’t?
I don’t know. It’s a very good question… I think we’ve made it useful to ourselves, but there are pros and cons to both. That flat structure we used to have was a delight to me because of the freedom that it gave, but it also was a frustration because you never bloody well got anything done. The staff meeting used to happen every single Friday for the whole day, with business in the morning and a gripe session in the afternoon, so for the whole afternoon we moaned at each other and complained and aired our personal grievances. The steering committee meeting could go until 11 o’clock at night! And people’s emotions would get stirred up and it became everybody’s problem.
How did that not rip it apart?
Well, you know Rape Crisis is always ripping itself apart and stitching itself together again. Continuously. It rips itself to pieces a lot less under the hierarchical structure, that I will say. But it tore several leaders off the top of its head: First director, second director, third director, all of them, ripped to pieces by the organisation. And I think the only reason I haven’t been is because I grew from the ranks so I had institutional fit, the longest institutional memory and a kind of legitimate authority that had nothing to do with being appointed.
I also think I have discovered my strength in the organisation, and it’s a listening kind of an authority, do you know what I mean? I’m accompanying the organisation on its journey towards its own transformation, which actually doesn’t depend on me. The organisation has its own life and we’re all just like planets circling it and providing our own influences.
So after 40 years of constant upheaval…
Not constant; there have been periods of stability and consolidation. And that counselling service is like a golden thread throughout. It never stops, day in, day out, night, day – it’s truly 24/7/365/40. It has not stopped for a moment, even under the direst of circumstances, and that’s phenomenal.
And you’ve managed to sustain this collaborative ethos throughout?
Your desire to collaborate has to be the prime mover – you have to be detached from the outcomes of that collaboration.
So what about when somebody inevitably comes along and says we’re not getting anything done, we need to set a clear goal and we need to align around that goal?
It’s bullshit. And we have to work with that kind of bullshit all the time, to pretend that we have these fixed goals and targets and keep enormous paper trails. But it works because along the way we’re exploring, we’re learning… actually, the more goal directed we become the more we learn, which is interesting.
So if you can bear the contradiction of being detached from the outcomes at the same time as being very clear about what those outcomes are – if you can live with that type of contradiction you’ll be fine.
So it’s all about process. Who is it who keeps pulling you back to that golden thread?
We all do it. Because we know that process is what works. If you say to someone “you’ve got to recover” and then they don’t, what are you going to do other than process?
So if we link process back to transformation…
… and liberation, don’t forget. You can work towards transformation, but liberation comes.
So what do those concepts mean to you?
Transformation is the change you can control, you know? You can restrain your emotions, you can think deeply about your actions, you can do things differently. But is that going to result in you having a sense of inner freedom? Maybe, maybe not.
So liberation is that sense of inner freedom? What does that look like?
Well, it’s happiness, it’s peace, it’s joy. It’s a sense that you are not restrained or constrained and yet at the same time you are safe; you feel safe, you feel at home, you feel comfortable. You feel comforted and you are able to console other people; you can give a lot, you’ve got endless abounding abundance to give because it flows, you know? It’s flowing through you, it’s not something that you try to capture or constrain or direct.
And it’s fleeting too; you don’t always feel that way. Dear God, you could be interviewing me on another day and I’d say it’s just impossible… you just have to treasure the possibility.
Pam Skyes is a Trustee of The Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and brings a wealth of communications expertise to the Board and the organisation. Read more here.