Honouring social workers on International Social Work Day
Every year International Social Work Day is celebrated on March 19 and now the local social work fraternity has started to organise a series of seminars with local and international academics to focus on the social challenges our poorest communities face.
Social workers are putting their heads together to find solutions for the growing social and economic crises that cripple poor communities.
Social workers are trained as agents of change and to bring about positive transformation when supporting individuals, families and communities who experience some form of social dysfunction.
The number of people, families and households facing hunger is growing. Over the past six months, the cost of living has increased at an alarming rate. Price increases in basic and staple household goods as a result of increases in the petrol price, electricity and rates are affecting the lives of all citizens in all communities.
In poor and marginalised communities where families do not have savings, are unemployed or do seasonal work, their daily survival becomes a struggle.
When families are challenged to make ends meet, the attraction of crime, drugs and gangsterism seems to be the only escape for young people trapped in poverty.
It is in these situations that social workers and community workers are expected to perform miracles and find solutions to address and remedy the social dysfunction.
In South Africa, social work has been identified as a scarce skill because it is not attractive to work with the destitute anymore.
Fewer social service professionals employed by NGOs, government departments and municipalities are now forced to think out of the box to develop intervention strategies that can empower communities to take ownership to collectively address and eradicate the dysfunction they experience.
The work of NGOs in poor communities is well documented, but unfortunately reduced funding affects the level and scale of services to communities.
It is therefore important for NGOs to break away from the dependency on grants and donations. To source new streams of income, NGOs have to consider alternative vehicles and strategies to generate income by adopting commercial and business practices to remain sustainable.
In recent times, many NGOs featured in the media for the incorrect reasons - retrenching staff because of lack of funding, or selling property to settle debts and cover salaries.
As social service professionals we have to start looking at innovative strategies to make the profession attractive to young graduates and young people looking for a career path.
Imagine the challenges of social work professionals in the 1960s and 1970s during apartheid and forced removals.
Pioneering social workers of the time had to think on their feet to come up with strategies and interventions that could address the social challenges associated with forced removals.
Social workers, such as George Gibbs and Lionel Woldson, became instrumental in setting up the Kupugani Shop at the Early Learning Centre in Kewtown, Athlone, where people could buy basic food supplies at reduced prices.
Gibbs went on to start the Build a Better Society (BABS) in Silvertown, where a self-help housing scheme was piloted that was funded by Mobil and, later, Anglo American.
Other social workers, such as Fouzia Ryklief, Amelia Jones, Oufie Isaacs and Mariam Abrahams, worked at Nicro with Anne Templeton during the 1970s, where they started a much-needed bus service so families could visit loved ones at local prisons.
They were also involved in establishing the first night shelter for homeless people, and a half-way house to reintegrate parolees back into society.
Madeline Foster was also part of the committee that started the night shelter in Harrington Street, in Cape Town’s CBD, as an initiative of the Catholic Church.
Many other social workers were responsible for anchoring welfare organisations across the Cape Flats - Patrick Smith at Shawco in Manenberg and Bakaar Taliep at Shawco in Elsies River; Asma Samodien and Jessica Fortuin, who were the stalwarts at Cafda in Retreat; and Amelia Jones who, for many years, was the face of Community Chest.
Many of these social work pioneers, such as Celeste van der Merwe and Fouzia Ryklief, became instrumental in setting up institutions such as the Parent Centre in Wynberg. Dr Lionel Louw, a known anti-apartheid cleric was also head of the social work department at UCT and played a key role in the Foundation for Community Work in Kewtown, where he and other social workers, such as the late Professor Adam Small and Professor Edna van Harte, started pioneering work in early childhood development and giving direction to the organisation.
Social workers saw the need on the ground and played key roles in setting up the Avalon Treatment Centre and the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women.
Facilities that despite funding challenges are still benefiting the local community.
Dr Nomvula Mtewa, who despite her advanced age, still makes time to do voluntary work with the women from her community in Langa.
This year, in recognising the contributions and legacy of pioneering social workers in the Western Cape, the Social Work Department at UWC, in partnership with the Howard School of Social Work, USA, and the Western Cape Association for Social Work, saw it fit to honour some of the stalwarts and pioneers in the profession at a special function this month at UWC.
As a profession we will forever be indebted to the pioneering social workers who fought so valiantly for justice and change.
The acknowledgement and celebration of their contribution is a small token of appreciation to a cadre who richly deserve to have their contributions acknowledged. They are my Struggle heroes.
Their struggles were closely associated with the struggles of poor communities - struggling to make ends meet, struggling to put food on the table and struggling to fight the scourge of poverty, crime, drugs and violence that continue to wreak havoc in our communities.
* Riedewhaan Allie is director of the Western Cape Foundation for Community Work.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.