Professionalism is an ideal defined as the norms or values that orient the work of an occupation. In practice, research derived from country settings in the Global North shows how the ideal of professionalism competes with market and bureaucratic priorities. Less is known about how professionalism is nurtured or subjugated to market and bureaucratic institutions in postcolonial contexts in the Global South. This paper takes up the study of factors that promote or constrain professionalism in one postcolonial setting by contrasting South African social worker professionalism during and after apartheid. In the wake of calls for international research that is historically-grounded and sensitive to local context, data drawn from archival research and ethnographic fieldwork finds that social workers are prevented from asserting their professional values as a unified profession due to enduring race divisions in the profession. Another legacy of apartheid is the profession's dependency on the state for funding social worker salaries, which constrains social workers ability to assert professional values independent of the state's agenda. Finally, the organizational context employing social workers creates uneven opportunities for social workers to assert their professional values through policy advocacy.

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