Champions of the voiceless

With just one social worker for every 47 people in South Africa, these frontline practitioners wage a daily struggle. They are critical for a functioning society yet their resources are scarce. Social workers support individuals and families through tumultuous times and ensure that vulnerable people are protected. They often serve as guides as well as advocating on behalf of individuals and communities.

In line with World Social Work Day, which was celebrated on March 20 2018, the Mail & Guardian hosted a Critical Thinking Forum at the Gordon Institute of Business Science on March 22 2018. The focus was upon the global theme of promoting community and environmental sustainability, upheld by social workers.

Various stakeholders in the value chain unpacked success stories and the inevitable challenges faced by social workers, many of whom work in and with other professions and sectors.

Nandi Mayathula-Khoza, Gauteng MEC for social development, reiterated the importance of the profession within the country. “Our perception of human rights is not merely a concept, but a reality forged out of a very painful past. Social work is about human rights. We transform our society by building conscious and capable citizens through the provision of integrated social development services. We need to be guided by the values of human dignity, respect, integrity and equality.”

Nandi Mayathula-Khoza, Gauteng MEC for social development, with one of the beneficiaries of the department’s programmes

Panel member Corlie van Berg, a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, discussed the academic position regarding social work and its role in uplifting the poor, as well as maintaining the necessary support for those involved in the profession. Pegie Chirwara, a social work master’s student, talked about the effects of the environment on people in poor communities, and how it exacerbates the inequalities between the rich and the poor. She stressed the need for an integrated environmental, socioeconomic stance to assist the most vulnerable.

Social worker Tshifhiwa Tshikanaha said the key role of social workers is advocating for human rights. He noted how often social workers ensure relief for the most vulnerable in society — children. Sarah Papi of the Gauteng Social Workers Forum said there is a need for veteran social workers to assist those who are new to the field. She explained how social workers can become burned out due to the high demands placed on them, eventually having to compromise on the services they render. This can lead to neglect and exhaustion. Passing on the baton to young social workers and a commitment to ongoing professional development was also highlighted during her address.

Mayathula-Khoza praised Gauteng’s social workers for their hard work and achievements, despite having the odds stacked against them. “We salute you social workers. We need to stand together to celebrate the achievements of this profession. We appreciate the role played by social workers in promoting positive change in the lives of families and community sustainability.”

Sibusiso Mcanyana, a social worker at the National Association of Social Workers South Africa spoke about their commitment to various programmes of action to ensure community and environmental sustainability. There is a particular focus on education as well as active participation in finding alternative energy solutions. Upskilling the youth to drive this change to renewable energy and technology is of paramount importance, he said.

The challenges faced by social workers, who carry the weight of the wellbeing of others on a day-to-day basis, can prove daunting at times. However, many individuals have benefitted from the various programmes implemented over the years by Gauteng’s social development department. Working alongside other departments, it has positively impacted the lives of individuals, families and communities. The government is putting more measures in place to support and develop a strong workforce of social workers.

Mayathula-Khoza said: “This year, 2018/2019, we have committed ourselves to four priorities. The first is [providing] access to early childhood development [facilities and education]. The second is protecting those who are vulnerable in our society and those who are suffering — especially those infected and affected by HIV. Thirdly, supporting co-operatives, and lastly, focusing on poverty and hunger eradication. We have a budget of R4.2-billion, which may sound like a lot, but it’s not enough. We need to see the departments working together to create a more socially just society.”

In attendance were many beneficiaries whose lives have improved with the help of social workers and through the support of the department of social development in Gauteng.

Tebello Thulo (24) has benefitted from the help of social workers over the years. “I have been a foster care beneficiary for nine years. Their intervention helped me to stay out of trouble and choose a different path. They encouraged, advised and pushed me to reach my goal. I now give back and am the right-hand man to other social workers. I go back to communities and show others that we can do more. Change is possible.”

Senoir citizen Elizabeth Tau shared her gratitude for the benefits she’s received. “I took in a child whose parents had passed away. With the help of a social worker, I was able to look after her. The social worker helped me to fill in forms, and she was exempted from paying school fees; she finished primary school and went to high school. They helped me with books and food, and now I don’t struggle so much anymore.”

Linda Cekiso said: “I fostered four kids who were staying with their grandmother and moved in with me here in Jo’burg. Two still stay with me today. I am a cleaner and could not afford to look after all of them. Since the social worker helped me, I’m able to cover the costs of food, transport and clothes. They have helped me and the children a lot.”

The department has assisted co-operatives to sustain themselves and provided employment for some community members. Grace Vilakazi is part of Zithobeni Sewing Co-operative. Her business has supplied hundreds of children with locally made school uniforms and shoes since 2010. She has been able to grow her business and reach new frontiers as a community member and business owner.

Progress has been made over the years despite the daunting tasks social workers and the department face. Addressing the inequalities of the past and implementing the ideals of social justice and human rights for all is not easy. In line with the Millenium Development Goals and National Development Plan 2030, social workers embody the spirit of Thuma Mina. They are the nameless heroes of society. Their profession requires commitment, relentless optimism and strength. As they forge on, may we know them, may we help them, may we join them. Aluta continua.

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