Short History of OTASA

How it all began

Way back during World War II, two intrepid Occupational Therapists sailed from Britain for South Africa in January 1942 to establish the first training course at the University of the Witwatersrand, as well as the first OT Department at the Johannesburg General Hospital, then situated on Hospital Hill. On the way their ship was torpedoed and they lost literally everything: clothes, books, lecture notes and equipment and they did not arrive in Johannesburg until late 1942.

Nevertheless, the course started as planned in 1943 with six students and Occupational Therapy made its debut in South Africa. In 1945 the next large hospital to open an OT Department was Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, under Elizabeth Turner. By now there were three other OT’s in the country, brought out under the auspices of the Red Cross, who cared for the large number of injured service men recuperating in military hospitals in South Africa.

In 1945 the five Occupational Therapists had a meeting in Johannesburg to form an organization that could speak for all the OT’s in South Africa. They realised that employing bodies were more likely to listen to an organised group than to individual approaches. Thus the SAAOT (SA Association of Occupational Therapists) was inaugurated with five full members. First, second and third year students attended this inaugural meeting.

The early years

From a modest beginning the Association grew year by year, while training centres opened first at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1943, Pretoria in 1955, Stellenbosch in 1961, University of Cape Town in 1972, University of the Free State in 1976, MEDUNSA in 1976, University of Durban-Westville in 1977 and University of the Western Cape in 1980. The Association recognised the need for trained auxiliary workers and training at various hospitals was encouraged and assisted, as well as the Technician’s courses at Technikons.

In the seventies and eighties the profession expanded, especially in the field of private practice, but it was restrained at all times by the laws of the apartheid regime. The majority of occupational therapists were opposed to those regulations, as they affected health care. At Groote Schuur Hospital all races were treated, but in separate wards. However, there was an acute shortage of space, so that all races were treated in the same area at the same time in occupational therapy. A similar situation existed at Conradie Hospital where there was only one specialised spinal unit and all patients were treated together.

From the very beginning of the Association, the constitution stipulated that no occupational therapist could be excluded from membership on account of race. By the 1990’s the winds of change were blowing strongly and occupational therapists and other health professionals protested about the deteriorating health services. Members felt dissatisfied with the apparent stagnation of the Association. At the 1993 Council meeting there was consensus that the Association needed to change. At this time the National Exco moved to the Western Cape, and this group made the first move in the transformation process. 

In March 1994 a general meeting of all Occupational Therapy staff, whether members of the Association or not, was called in Cape Town to discuss the problems and solutions. A small committee was elected to work on a proposal for the 1994 Council meeting. This committee was given the task of steering the transformation process. They became the official Transformation Committee tasked with collecting information and suggestions from all regions where meetings and workshops were held. 

Present Structure

In December 1994 a General Forum was held in Cape Town with representatives from all areas. A new constitution was drafted and a name change suggested: SAAOT to OTASA. The words occupational therapists were changed to occupational therapy. This emphasised that membership was open to therapists as well as to auxiliaries, so that all people involved in OT treatment had a say in the running of the Association. At the national Annual General Meeting in June 1996 the new constitution and the change of name were ratified and so the SAAOT became the OTASA.

Another major development took place at much the same time. In 1994 a permanent office for the Association was established in Pretoria with a paid office manager and assistant treasurer to deal with the everyday running of the Association. This in itself added immensely to the smooth running of the organisation, and took care of all queries from members.

Having transformed its membership by broadening its base, the Association is now looking closely at how its various committees function. Plans are afoot to improve the organisational efficiency of the Association, and especially to improve the marketing of the profession and recruiting of new members. Greater numbers means a stronger voice for occupational therapy in the country.

World Federation of Occupational Therapists

The SAAOT was one of the founder members of the Federation in 1952. Vona du Toit was the first Vice-President of WFOT.

Compiled by Joan Davy – Historian of the Association March 2003