Angela Rackstraw: Inspiring hope through art therapy

Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu says Angela Rackstraw has made great strides at breaking down racial and cultural barriers in South Africa through art and art education.

Desmond Tutu | Jan/Feb 2009 issue

Angela Rackstraw, Founder, Community Art Therapy. Cape Town, South Africa

Photo: Chris Bolin (Tutu)

It all began in the 1980s, when the apartheid government cracked down on black communities that were becoming hotbeds of protest. Crossroads in Cape Town was a relatively small community of informal shacks, but it was volatile and torn apart by factions. One of these factions was in the pay of the government, with the mandate to destroy the anti-government activists.
Angela was a member of Christ Church, Kenilworth, an Anglican parish with a deep sense of social commitment. The parishioners ran the gauntlet of the government, providing food and blankets to the activists and their families in Crossroads, delivering these supplies to a church hall in the dead of night, a most dangerous undertaking at the time.
Angela was a nurse, and she wanted to see what was going on. She rode on the relief vehicle late at night. What she saw shocked her to the core. Children were playing in the street, jumping over humps in the road. Coming closer, she saw the humps were the dead and the dying, victims of the latest shootout. What would happen to children for whom such violence was commonplace? Inevitably, they’d become teenagers who might kill or be killed. Angela was determined to do something, but nursing wasn’t enough.
There was only one art therapist in the country at the time. Angela met with her and knew that this was what she was looking for. But to become an art therapist, she needed expertise in psychology, and although she was a talented artist, she had no training. She took a course in psychology at the University of Cape Town and another course in art. The University of Hereford in the U.K. offered a degree in art therapy and welcomed her, but the cost was beyond her. She entered a national art competition. She was the joint winner of the 32,000 rand ($3,000) prize, a considerable accomplishment in itself. Her 16,000 rand ($1,500) share covered her tuition for the first term, but she struggled to raise the money for her airline ticket. Two weeks before she was due to leave, her prayers were answered and the money came in. She spent four years studying in the U.K., working nights in an old-age home to cover her living costs. She graduated with a master’s degree in art therapy.
She returned to Cape Town but there were no job openings. So she founded the Community Art Therapy program, with nothing. Her first breakthrough was to work with nurses in the township of Khayelitsha; gradually a little private work came in to keep her going. That was 11 years ago. She now runs the program from a shipping container at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Nyanga. Funding is still a problem and her work with children and women may be a drop in the ocean considering the thousands upon thousands who live in our sprawling townships, often in the most appalling conditions, where they become victims of abuse, violence and exploitation. But for those who come to Angela, she’s a healer who endows them with hope. She gives children a future, and that’s a gift to us all.

Angela Rackstrarw was nominated as one of
Ode’s top 25 Intelligent Optimists by Desmond Tutu.
Desmond Tutu, archbishop, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and chairmen of The Elders, a group of public figures known as elder statesmen, peace activists and human rights advocates


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