A woman with a cause and a heart of gold

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Profile Dr Wendy Orr

Melissa Douman

Wendy Orr, the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister and Social Worker has lead and continues to lead an extraordinary life. A life that has influenced change in the apartheid struggle, fights for human rights and still manages being a single-mother, sister and the glue that holds families together.

Dr Wendy Orr was just 22 when she qualified as a medical doctor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 1983. Her older sister Dr Margaret Orr says that Wendy was always the smart one in the family. She was put in a special classing when she just started school and matriculated with 7 distinctions. “From the age of ten I knew that I wanted to become a doctor,” says Wendy.

She started her career at the examiners office in Port Elizabeth where she witnessed and treated beaten-up political detainees. She witnessed up to 80 patients every two hours being brought in after being beaten by the police.
Being brought up in a home where treating people from all colours and creeds equally were instilled meant that she knew that these practices were not right. Though the church her father ministered at had a white only congregation he had colleagues that were not white. Sometimes his non-white colleagues would come home for supper and sometimes they would sleep over. “I did not have a sense of being superior to Black people as I had friends that were Black and respected my father’s colleagues who were Black,” she says, “But I was always aware that I was in a privileged position and though I didn’t feel that apartheid was right, I still benefited from it.”
When she worked at the examiners office and became aware of the police’s cruel practices, she knew that it was not right and therefore felt compelled to do something to change it.
She became the first and the only doctor to reveal police torture and abuse of detainees. She did this at the age of 24. She didn’t do it alone however; with the help of legal support, she gained an avenue through the courts. She then successfully approached the Supreme Court of South Africa to grant an interdiction against the police to prevent assault of detainees.
Wendy says that the other doctors were trained to do jobs that they didn’t want to lose so at lunch times did not speak of the torture that they had just witnessed. When she spoke out it against the police, her life was made extremely difficult by her colleagues who distanced themselves from her and didn’t even sit with her at lunch.
Margaret says that they were trying times and that Wendy had to live through death threats and angry people. “She was young and she did something that was right but it was something that came with a consequence,” says Margaret.

Wendy calls herself an “accidental activist,” because the 1984 activism prompted her to become actively involved in human rights activism and pursue a career doing work that supported her beliefs that “we are not alone, our personal values influence making ethical decisions and we must acknowledge our humanity at all times.”

She did volunteer work for Rape Crisis and People Opposing Women’s Abuse (POWA) and was a member of the Human Rights Committee’s Working group on the provision of health care in prisons.

In the early 1990s she became involved in activism around HIV/AIDS and spearheaded the university of Cape Towns HIV/AIDS policy development and implementation process. She trained as an AIDS counselor in New York and in London and played an active role in AIDS education and training on the campus of UCT.

President Nelson Mandela appointed her as a Commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in 1995 where she served until its closure in 1998.
She heard stories and saw people guilty of the most offensive crimes walk free. Margaret Orr says that Wendy is one of the strongest people that she knows. When Margaret asked her sister how she manages to continue the struggle of activism when she has already witnessed so much, Wendy said that it is something that she doesn’t take personally, because if she did allow herself to get more emotionally involved than she already was, she wouldn’t have the strength to continue the fight.

Wendy says that working on the TRC was an incredible privilege but it was really difficult to experience. “If you ask me whether I would do it again, I would probably still have worked with the detainees but I don’t think that I would do the TRC again. It was three years and one of the most emotionally draining experiences.”

After the closure of the TRC, she was appointed as Director of Transformation and Employment Equity at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Despite this, she continued her involvement in the health sector.

In 2005, over 10 years of activism and being exposed to the harshness and scarring that are the legacies of apartheid she decided that she needed a career change and has dubbed this change her “mid life career change,” when she decided to join Resolve, working in the human rights sector as a consultant to the private and higher education sectors on transformation and black economic empowerment strategies.

“I left practicing as a doctor when I started working at the TRC because I didn’t have the time to practice and work on the commission. I don’t think that I will ever practice as a doctor again. It’s not very intellectually stimulating. I suppose it was helpful in training my brain in analyzing situations,” she says.

It has been established that Wendy comes from a family with strong ethical and moral values, a family that despite a political trend or societal belief still strives to do what is right. Our father used to say that “For evil to triumph it is necessary for good people only to do nothing”, says Margaret.
Wendy explains that a lot of pressure was put on herself and her siblings when they were growing up. They were the Ministers children and as such were expected from the members of the congregation not only to live good lives but to live lives that would serve as examples to others.
Margaret says that they all rebelled at some point. She says that all siblings apart from Wendy smoke “ostentatiously,” and they get lectured about their bad habits from Wendy.

stop_smoking1.jpg Photo Courtesy of Gety Images

Wendy has two older sisters and a younger brother who have all done work that benefits society, which is another belief her father used to instill in them by saying “You have to do work that has meaning and you must utilize your talents.”
Indeed they all did pursue careers that influenced change. Wendy’s oldest sister Dr Margaret Orr has a PhD in English and is the Director of the Centre for Learning and Training Development at Wits University. Her second oldest sister Cathy joined in marches against the apartheid struggle in varsity and is now settled in the country where she runs a coffee shop. Her younger brother, “the masterpiece of the family,” because her parents really wanted a boy is an advocate.

“We fought a lot growing up and we still fight, says Margaret who also says that the three sisters shared a bedroom for 15 years. She says that the longest they have ever gone not talking was a few weeks. “When one of us can’t take the silence anymore an email is sent explaining why they were mad and how we can work to resolve the misunderstanding,” she explains adding that this was a custom that their father practiced.

Wendy has an eight-year old son named Robert and says that “he is the best thing that I have ever done.” He wants to be a pearl diver when he grows up. His father is coloured and Robert asked his mom one day “mommy what colour am I?” Wendy tried to answer diplomatically and said “Well you have an olive complexion and when you go out into the sun you become a sort of toffee colour.” Robert replied saying “Ag no mom, I think that I am light-black.”

Margaret says that Wendy is extraordinary and doesn’t know where she finds the time to do everything that she does. “Wendy is a single mother and her son can be a handful but he is also a mad little genius,” she says. And explains that Wendy has a toolbox and on the weekend you may find her doing all sorts of handiwork around her house.

Margaret says that Wendy is the healer and the organizer of the family. They are a very close knit family and find any excuse to celebrate a holiday just to create a reason for get-togethers. Most of the get-togethers are held at Wendy’s house. Wendy cooks and sets up and is very organized “she planned and executed her sister Cathie’s wedding including making all the food. Wendy can’t recall doing anything crazy. She says that she travels a lot but that she is very systematic and organized and likes to be in control of her life so she can’t think of doing anything crazy. Her sister shares her sentiments and says that “Wendy doesn’t really do crazy, if it were crazy it would be planned. She did go whit water rafting once, and she does travel a lot. She would normally call me up and say that she has planned a trip would I like to go?”

Wendy though she doesn’t practice anymore still looks at all the “odd bits” of her family explains Margaret. Margaret recalls an incident that occurred a few years ago where her new boyfriend at the time accidentally cut his head open. “We called Wendy immediately, she met my boyfriend for the first time while she stitched his head up,” she says laughing.

There are two boys and three girl cousins in the family (all children from the brothers and sisters) and the boys are somewhat outnumbered. “We are a family of strong women says Margaret who also says that when the family gets together it is not a role assumed only by the girls to set the table, wash the dishes or serve the food, they take turns- boys included. They make a point of discouraging boys are better than girls and vice versa talk and encourage the kids to grow up knowing that boys and girls are equal and should be treated with the same respect. “A lot of men in our generation have not made that jump.”

When asked whether she would ever leave South Africa or encourage her son to leave South Africa she replied saying that “I know that I benefited as a white person in South Africa. I feel that I owe it to the country to stay.” She said that the country has a lot of potential as it progresses with transformation and that it has the potential to be incredible “if we could get things right.”
“I do worry about his safety, because of the crime and the violence but this is a beautiful country,” she adds.

Margaret says that Wendy loves to say “Responsibility is a force for good,” and takes on responsibilities that she doesn’t always have to, like the commitment she made to her child minder and Domestic worker Doreen’s 15 year old daughter. Wendy has undertaken the expense of Dikeledi’s education and sent her to complete school at Sacred Heart College. She also pays for Dikeledi’s uniform, school camps and text books.

Dr Wendy Orr has lived an extraordinary life an has been acknowledged with several awards. She received the MK Seedat Health and Human Rights Award and in December 1998 received the United Nations Association Human Rights Community British Medical Association on a report on the role of doctors in preventing human rights abuses, between 1996 and 2000. She won the League Human Rights Award in 1990 and in 1991 was shortlisted for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Human Rights Medicine Fellowship.
A quote taken from her book entitled From Biko to Basson where she documents her experiences at the examiners office in Cape Town is more like a way of life where she says “Honour your own humanity by recognizing and honouring the humanity of others, regardless of colour, creed, gender, nationality. Honour humanity by valuing the richness that difference creates, by seeking to understand rather than to condemn and by being true to yourself.”


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