The Bertha Retreat was created as a space where activists, lawyers, storytellers and community groups could work together to advance social and economic justice and equal rights for all. Since opening, the Retreat has hosted more than 100 activist groups and workshops, and although the Retreat was supporting this work, the space was also intended to serve as a community resource.
As it is based at Boschendal Wine Farm – a commercial entity – in the Dwarsrivier Valley, South Africa, sometimes the Retreat’s purpose and position became conflated with the wine farm – particularly to the four communities in the surrounding area. This was a problem for the Retreat, as the ambiguity created difficulties in forming relationships with nearby residents and the murky differentiation between the Retreat and the farm meant that the space wasn’t viewed as a resource, but as an inaccessible entity.
In 2019, planning for the new Bertha Retreat began, and with that came the opportunity to dedicate time to reintroduce, realign and reset Bertha’s mission within the valley. Planning the new Retreat was not just about installing a set of new buildings; instead, a big part of the planning was around the community. When the first retreat was built, the Bertha team had very little involvement and no explicit consideration had been given to engaging with the local residents. With this chance to make a fresh start, the team wanted to bring the community into the work that Bertha was doing. To accomplish this, Bertha Funds were used strategically to expand on and grow relationships with the community.
The Retreat managers had to be creative in formulating the best approach to build long-term, meaningful relationships with the communities that make up the valley: Lanquedoc, Pniel, Kylemore and Meerlust. The team had two ideas to make this happen. The first was to create a Friends of Bertha committee – made up of individuals from the four surrounding areas – to act as a bridge between the Retreat and the communities. The second idea, which would also serve as a tool to help build the Friends of Bertha, was to hold events coinciding with significant South African public holidays, collaborating with community groups while engaging young people with sports, art and culture.
The partnership’s first event was in Lanquedoc, and was held to acknowledge the 16 days of activism against the abuse of women and children. The Retreat team worked with a group of Lanquedoc community members to organize the event; this group then made the first selections for the Friends of Bertha committee, nominating two people who would represent the Lanquedoc community. The event ran for five days and kept youth active, entertained and discussing important issues that affect their community. By the final day, both children and parents from the area came out to participate in activities. It is safe to say that the event was an immediate success.
This method quickly picked up momentum, and the next event was held in Meerlust. The energy was contagious and spread to the next two areas: Kylemore, where the Bertha Retreat team celebrated human rights with the young people at Kylemore primary school, and Pniel, where they celebrated Youth Day 2022. The events allowed the Retreat managers to both reintroduce themselves and build pathways of connection and communication with the local residents. At each event, two more Friends of Bertha were selected by community members. By the end of June 2022, each of the four communities had representatives to act as a bridge, connecting the Bertha Retreat to the areas surrounding it.
The Friends of Bertha, made up of individuals selected because of their passion for their communities, help to ensure that the Retreat staff don’t make any assumptions about what each community needs. They also speak to community members directly about Bertha Retreat’s purpose and position, and who has access to this space.
Although the Friends of Bertha committee had been formed, the Retreat team wasn’t finished with the planned events, and together they moved on to the next. The last goal was to get all four areas to come together in one place on June 16 to celebrate Youth Day, a first in the area. The day’s festivities included sporting events, arts and cultural activities where groups from all four communities participated and spread the fun. After the successful event series, the Friends of Bertha and the Retreat team have begun meeting every two weeks to check in, review their plans for the future and discuss how they’ll continue to work together with the communities.
Photo 1: Tug-of-war game with PC Peterson Primary School learners in Kylemore, in celebration of Human Rights Day. Photo: Nathan Mose
Photo 2: Left to right: Bertha Spaces Director Gavin Silber and Bertha Retreat Co-manager Lerato Sitole celebrate Youth Day at Kylemore High School. Photo: Zacharia Mashele
Photo 3: Friends of Bertha (the planning team) and volunteers for a community engagement event held in Kylemore. Back row (left to right): Monique Green, Nelisa Pulo, Eldred Kleinschmit, Mbasa Smit, Lerato Sitole, Earl Cyster, Belinda May, Harry Sitole, Angelo Lawrence, Lynn Cyster, Johanna Pietersen, Claudio September, Ncebakazi Somdaka, Methleen Jason, Poppie Africa and George Africa. Front row (left to right): Siseko Pichana, Nonzukiso Mgcawe, Tsotang Ntoa, Marchel van Rooyen, Mecky van Rooyen, Daleen Jason. Photo: Zacharia Mashele
Copy Editor: Catherine Sweet
Author: Lerato Sitole, Bertha Retreat Co-Manager