UNHELPFUL HELP: THE SOCIAL WORK PROFESSION’S RESPONSE TO MASS POVERTY IN SOUTH AFRICA
AbstractThis article begins by describing poverty in South Africa, examining systemic responses to it, and reflecting upon social work’s role in poverty alleviation. In so doing, it takes a brief historical detour to trace social work’s roots in South Africa, showing that from its inception the profession has been hard pressed to find meaningful solutions to poverty, and make a significant impact on poverty eradication in South Africa. Since social work has always been intimately tied to social welfare, it has been prone to political manipulation, despite its social justice value base. Social work in South Africa drew on foreign theories and models of practice that did not necessarily acknowledge or take into account diverse local realities and indigenous practices (Gray, 2003; Gray & Allegritti, 2002; Gray & Allegritti, 2003; Osei-Hwedie, 2002). Sixteen years after democracy these imperialistic influences (Midgley, 1981) continue to have a profound impact on social work education and practice in South Africa. As a result, social work does little more than manage and maintain poverty at “acceptable” levels instead of constructively contributing to its eradication. The profession has largely failed to adopt a proactive, structural focus in the training of students and the implementation of poverty-alleviation interventions. Instead reactive, ameliorative, remedial and curative approaches that prevent the profession from contributing significantly to the alleviation of mass poverty in South Africa are followed.
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