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.
Professionalism is an ideal defined as the norms or values that orient the work of an occupation and provide a justification for occupational control over an area of expertise. This ideal elevates high-quality expert work over the maximization of individual or organizational financial gain (Freidson 2001). In practice, however, the ideal of professionalism competes with market and bureaucratic priorities. Recent studies have shown how global transformations in capital and the retreat of the welfare state have subsumed professionalism under market or bureaucratic priorities (Evetts 2013, Muzio and Kirkpatrick 2011). However, empirical research is concentrated in the Global North, where professions tend to be sustained in robust economies and politically liberal institutions of governance. Less is known about how professionalism is nurtured or subjugated to market and bureaucratic institutions in postcolonial contexts in the Global South (Khulmann 2013).
This paper takes up the study of professionalism in one postcolonial setting by contrasting South African social worker professionalism during and after apartheid. Social work places social justice and change at the center of its professional ethos. Historical cases in the Global North have shown the potential for social workers to improve the human condition through activism and policy advocacy (Healy 2008; Midgley 2001); however, research also suggests that social workers’ limited control over their area of expertise constrains their ability to adopt strong political and policy positions (Thompson 1994; Welbourne 2009). In the context of South Africa's history of colonization and postcolonial transformation, the social work profession provides a compelling case to study the factors that support or inhibit the expression of professional values in a society in transition.
Key questions guiding this study are, generally, what are the factors that promote or obstruct social worker professionalism during and after apartheid, and, specifically, how do social workers negotiate social justice agendas during and after apartheid? To answer these questions, I compare the political participation of social workers in two children's rights crises in recent South African history: children detained without trial as anti-apartheid activists during apartheid; and children orphaned by AIDS after apartheid, from the late 1990s to the late 2000s. Based on these historical comparisons I find that the legacy of apartheid produces enduring race inequalities among social workers that lead to fragmentation in the profession, preventing social workers from presenting a unified front in policy reform processes. Another legacy of apartheid is the profession's dependency on the state for funding of social workers’ 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 participation in activism and policy reform.
The social work profession was at the forefront of children's rights campaigns in South Africa both during apartheid and after. In the first crisis, the incarceration of children in the late apartheid period in South Africa was a rallying point for social workers. At that time the social work profession was segregated by race, with white social workers (the population minority) in dominant positions in the profession, and African social workers’ access to education and employment restricted. Salary scales and promotion to managerial roles were also predicated on race, with white social workers receiving the highest salaries and leadership positions, and African social workers having significantly lower salaries and limited career mobility. At the height of apartheid the state segregated welfare services, and social workers who received state-funded salaries were complicit in the apartheid regime's racist agenda. However, independent social workers, employed by NGOs, were instrumental in the formation of the Free the Children Alliance (FCA). The FCA forced social work professionals to reckon with the political dimensions of social work amid the apartheid government's human rights atrocities. During apartheid, race stratification and regulatory controls by the apartheid regime created enormous obstacles for social workers to act on their social justice goals as a unified profession to end children's incarceration. However, independent activist organizations created a safe haven for social workers to advocate for children detained without trial.
After apartheid, racist regulations governing social work functions and welfare service delivery were removed, and the state actively sought to improve Africans’ access to the social work profession. In the second crisis, described in the later part of the paper, the scale of poverty and inequality due to apartheid placed children's rights at the center of South African constitutional and public policy reform. Social workers joined other professional groups to lobby the Department of Social Development to strengthen social policy to respond to the AIDS pandemic and the plight of children it orphaned. An analysis of state, profession, and activist network negotiations over children-AIDS policy captures how social workers exerted their professional influence and asserted professional goals based on children's rights to ensure key policy reform; however, their efforts ultimately undermined social workers’ roles in child welfare and diminished their control over child welfare policy and practice. After apartheid, race stratification continues to limit the ability of the profession to act in concert over proposed reforms to children's welfare legislation that would benefit children orphaned due to the AIDS epidemic. Furthermore, social workers are dependent on the state for funding of vital social work roles, which limits the profession's ability to adopt independent positions. But social workers employed by charities independent of the state are able to participate in professional and activist movements that have challenged state policy.
In the wake of calls for international research that is historically grounded and sensitive to local context (Adams 2015; Kuhlmann 2013), this study examines how the legacy of apartheid, state–profession relations, and the organizational context of social work either promote or constrain social worker professionalism in South Africa, to build an evidence base on the consequences of postcolonial transformation for professional work.
THE CONTESTED PLACE OF SOCIAL WORK IN THE THEORY OF PROFESSIONS
Social work is one of the professional groups that have not attained monopoly status, as have medicine or law, and many have questioned whether it fulfills the criteria of a profession (Abbott 1995; Flexner 1915/2001; Larson 1977). Professions have been characterized by their discrete technical skill sets, standardized educational fields, high levels of internal organization, and protection by the nation-state over licensure, which give the profession exclusive jurisdiction over a domain of expertise (Flexner 1915/2001; Wilensky 1964). Flexner (1915/2001:160) did not view social work as a discrete profession but as “an endeavor to supplement certain existing professions pending their completed development.”
A dominant approach to the study of the professions has been the focus on professional development, or “professionalization,” defined as the “creation of a coherent occupational group with some control of abstract expertise” (Abbott 1988:154). Here again there is debate over whether social work has such coherence. Abbott (1995:550) describes social work as a profession of translation by “bringing all professional forces together in order to articulate and concentrate their resources as best might be for the particular client professions and turfs.” Abbott indicates that the key “turfs” that social workers negotiate include the workplace, the public, and the state. Yet this brokering role of social workers creates local sites of difference that “always exist—even within various inchoate areas of welfare-related tasks today—from which new professions or sub-professions could emerge” (558).
Scholars in the conflict tradition highlighted the competition and struggle for monopoly over a domain of expertise (Freidson 1988). Larson (1977:xvi) employs the term “professional project,” defined as a “process by which producers of special services sought to constitute and control a market for their expertise.” Abbott's (1988) ecological model also emphasizes conflict embedded in the process of professionalization but argues that the focus on professional dominance and monopoly attributes too much stability to the system of professions. For Abbott, the analytic focus needs to be placed on inter-professional competition over jurisdiction, the link between a profession and its work, which makes professional autonomy volatile.
A central focus in the study of professional projects examines processes of educational and legal closure where work groups seek to control the labor market and the nature of expert work by limiting access to professional credentials and licenses (Evetts 2013; Evetts and Dingwall 2002; Larson 1977; Macdonald 1995). Stratification within professions maps onto broader fault lines of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation (Hammond, Clayton, and Arnold 2012; Ruiz Castro 2012; Rumens and Kerfoot 2009). Scholarship on professions in postcolonial contexts has focused on how stratification within professions reflects the social inequities perpetuated by the colonizer (Annisette 2000; Marks 1991; Sian 2007; Walker 2005). This work builds on the conflict tradition in the sociology of the professions, which identifies how internal stratification within the profession secures the position of elites at the top of the professional hierarchy (Larson 1977). In South Africa, the apartheid regime established regulatory mechanisms governing education and licensure of professionals that instituted race and gender segregation and promoted members of the white minority to dominate the professions (Bonnin and Ruggunan 2016:274). In postcolonial settings, scholars examine how political transformation to democracy alters social stratification in professions. A key focus has been analysis of the role of the state in reducing race and ethnic barriers to entry into the professions (Bonnin and Ruggunan 2016; Sian 2007).
The professionalization literature tends to emphasize the self-interested nature of occupations striving for monopoly of the market of expertise; a more positive description of professions relates to their importance to the wider society (Evetts 2013). “Professionalism” has traditionally been defined as the normative aspect of professional work and “as something worth preserving and promoting in work and by and for workers” (Evetts 2011:7). While social work's professional characteristics have been debated, one of the defining features of the profession is the moral dimension that organizes its work. For Flexner (1915/2001:162), social work's ethical principles have been without dispute, “for the rewards of the social worker are in his own conscience and in heaven. His life is marked by devotion to impersonal ends, and his own satisfaction is largely through the satisfaction procured by his efforts for others.” These codified professional norms are linked to the altruistic and moral aspirations of a profession and are the foundation of laypersons’ trust in expert work (Dingwall 1999; Evetts 2013; Hughes 1958; Parsons 1939). For Freidson (2001:180), professionalism reflects occupational control over the practice of a knowledge or skill and the economic and social circumstances surrounding this practice, which he saw as preferable to control by the market or consumers.
In social work, there are competing normative values between a human rights orientation that places the focus of professional work on social reform, versus an individual focus on families and individuals in need. Midgley (2001) argues that individual casework focusing on needy individuals has been a dominant emphasis in the profession, dating back to the genesis of this work group toward the end of the nineteenth century in industrialized countries in the Global North. This focus on individual need is termed the remedial orientation, concentrating on psychosocial behavioral and treatment models for individuals in need. This remedial approach is contrasted with a human rights focus that places structural social reform as the locus of social work activity (Healy 2008; Lyons 1999). The ability of social workers to advocate for a strong social reform program is constrained by social work's dependence on the state, which limits the profession's autonomy to enact its professional values (Thompson 1994; Welbourne 2009).
Another thrust in the sociology of the professions has been the impact of regulation on professions. One reason social work struggles to gain monopoly over its area of expertise is its close relationship to the state. Larson (1977) situates the emergence of social work within the extension of the state into welfare. States protect professions from encroachment by other occupational groups by sanctioning professional licenses and acknowledging educational accreditation. These protections offered by the state enable a profession to create a monopoly over a jurisdiction and self-regulate its code of ethics. However, this regulatory oversight leads to a degree of dependence on the state.
Social service occupations are particularly affected by changing organizational contexts of professional work (Noordegraaf 2013), resulting in the reorganization of the profession and blurring of boundaries between social service and other forms of work. Furthermore, the social work profession has been affected by changes in global economic processes, including the decline in the welfare state and the rise of private-sector organizations in welfare services delivery. These processes have led to fragmentation within national social work professions and to greater dependence on other professional fields and institutional actors (Noordegraaf 2013). This reorientation of welfare services has led to new forms of social closure in professional projects (Henriksson, Wrede, and Burau 2006). Studies of stratification within professional fields are further complicated by informal forms of closure and stratification in organizations (Muzio and Kirkpatrick 2011). These realignments call for greater attention to the effect of organizational contexts on professional projects.
The renewed interest in the intersections between organizations and occupations provides a promising avenue for a better understanding of the contingent and complex processes in professions, organizations, and the state bureaucracy. Anteby, Chan, and DiBenigno (2016) suggest adopting a relational lens in understanding how organizations and professions connect. This approach is linked to Abbott's (1988, 1993) argument for situating professions in a broader contextual framework that considers cultural and social structure and inter- and intra-professional interactions. However, as Abbott (1993:204) notes, this analytic path has not been systematically adopted by sociologists of professions.
SOURCES OF DATA
This study combines archival and ethnographic research on South African welfare agencies. Archival information for the FCA case study is derived from personal and organizational collections, including the papers of the Black Sash, a feminist anti-apartheid organization; the papers of Di Bishop, a social worker who initiated an independent social worker organization and was member of the Black Sash; and the papers of the Quaker Service Project and the personal papers of Hendrik van der Merwe, its director. These collections are archived at the University of Cape Town. The archival component focuses on the workings of the FCA and the independent social work association formed by white activist social workers. To broaden the scope of my analysis to include both white and black social work activism, I included secondary sources on black social work associations formed in protest of the workings of the apartheid bureaucracy and the state-controlled professional associations.
For the post-apartheid era, I gathered qualitative data during my fieldwork in South Africa from 2007 to 2009 in the form of interviews with social workers and child policy experts and observations of social worker training and policy workshops. I supplemented these qualitative data with document analysis of parliamentary hearing minutes and policy legislation, and archival research on child welfare organizations in the Alan Paton Archive at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I secured human subjects ethical clearance from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
THE ORGANIZATION OF SOCIAL WORK DURING APARTHEID
Apartheid came into being in 1948, with the accession to power of the National Party, promulgating Afrikaner nationalism. New legislation and policies created a system of institutionalized racial discrimination. Four racial classes were delineated: black or African, colored, Indian or Asian, and white or European. The goal of apartheid was to broadly promote the minority white population (comprising two culturally distinct Afrikaans- and English-speaking groups), and in particular the white Afrikaans-speaking population, who were economically marginalized relative to the English-speaking group.
Social work was affected at numerous levels: education and training for social workers was segregated by race and language, as was membership in professional associations. Social work training was introduced during the 1920s, and the focus from the outset was the social conditions of white settlers. White poverty was the central focus of the colonial regime's welfare policy. The impetus for initiating welfare provision and social work services was the first Carnegie Commission of Inquiry in 1932, which considered the white population only. The research highlighted the significant scale of white poverty, which it attributed to changing structural conditions in the South African economy, rather than the personal failings of the poor. The commission advised the formation of a state department dedicated to welfare and suggested the formation of education centers to train social workers (McKendrick 1987; Nicholas 2010). In addition to white poverty, two other issues received special attention: the welfare of children and of the disabled. Thus, social work's origins were based on the welfare needs of poor whites and targeted individual families in need.
From the outset, welfare services were heavily skewed to the white population: for example, in 1943, the state budget for welfare was £9,750,000 (about USD 39,000,000), of which £8,300,000 was allocated to whites, £800,000 to Indian and colored groups, and £600,000 to Africans. At the time, the population was 20% white, 10% colored and Indian, and 68.8% African (McKendrick 1987:13). McKendrick argues that hidden racism was also practiced: for example, written legislation would not single out any specific race group, but in practice, Africans would not be offered welfare services. These asymmetries in welfare provision were only repealed when apartheid ended (Mazibuko and Gray 2004). As the following analysis will show, this racial discrimination in welfare significantly affected the professionalization of social workers.
In 1966, the Department of Social Welfare and Pensions mandated that welfare services be racially segregated. The formation of the African reserves or “homelands” led to the creation of separate welfare ministries for each of these territories (Lund 1988). The welfare budget allocations were significantly smaller than those for white-controlled South Africa (McKendrick 1987) and ultimately created a fragmented welfare system (Lund 1988) that was both costly and inefficient (Potgieter 1998). At its peak there were 18 national and provincial bureaucracies responsible for administration and delivery of welfare services (Potgieter 1998). These segregationist policies led the International Federation of Social Workers to expel South African social work from its membership in 1976 (Healy 2008).
Education and Employment for Social Workers
In the early days of apartheid, social work training was restricted to three universities: Natal, Cape Town, and Witwatersrand. These were “open” universities, meaning that they accepted students from all race groups—but there were few African social work students. Welfare officials were aware that only 84 out of 829 social workers were African (McKendrick 1987:183), but the prevailing policy at the time was that the three open universities were sufficient to provide training to Africans. In 1941, the American Board Mission established the Jan Hofmeyr School for Social Work in Johannesburg, which produced diploma-level training for Africans. The mission's intent was to create opportunities for Africans who had not secured a high school diploma to access training and assist neglected African communities in need of welfare services (McKendrick 1987).
The curriculum for social work training was firmly rooted in the social sciences, and the aim was to offer generalist training in social work for undergraduates. The education model was influenced by social work training in Western contexts (McKendrick 1987). This education model was laden with notions of racial difference and racial hierarchy that were later embedded in the social work curriculum; the model was influenced by the work of Hendrick Verwoed, the architect of apartheid, who began his career as a professor of sociology at the University of Stellenbosch and developed policy for the foundation of a social work degree (Nicholas 2010). Thus, the core characteristics of social work in South Africa, its expert knowledge and skills, as well as the construction of the credentialing system, were intertwined with the state's racial project.
By the late 1950s, apartheid legislation in the form of the Extension of Education Act (1959) paved the way for the creation of racially distinct universities for African, Indian, and colored populations and placed restrictions on the “open” universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, and Natal, which were now to accept only white applicants (McKendrick 1987).
McKendrick (1987) contends that the creation of separate universities for the different racial groups posed particular challenges for social work training. The curriculum followed the British model based on remedial casework discussed earlier in this paper, and thus had limited applicability to the problems facing Africans in the homelands and racially segregated urban areas, where social workers were contending with the widespread suffering caused by racial oppression. There was also a shortage of instructors, as white English-speaking staff refused to join these newly created universities (McKendrick 1987). Despite these challenges, the number of African, Indian, and colored students increased by 351% (from 51 to 229) from 1959 to 1964, although white students still outnumbered African students four to one (McKendrick 1987:183).
Legislative changes in 1965 mandated for the first time the registration of social workers. The National Welfare Act (1965) stipulated that social workers could register who had satisfied the requirements of an approved three-year degree or diploma (McKendrick 1987:187). By the mid-1970s, the total number of registered social workers was 3,728, and over 80% of them were white (McKendrick 1987:13).
Not only was there color stratification in the employment of social workers, but their salaries differed markedly. A flyer from the early 1980s identified salaries for social workers scaled by race and gender:
Salaries vary according to employer, and depend on qualifications and experience, and in government service, on race group. Starting salaries in the Cape Province: ‘Black’ men – R3108 p.a; ‘Black’ women – R3000 p.a; ‘Coloured’ men and women – R3900 p.a; ‘White’ men and women – R4740 p.a. (Di Bishop papers, 1980 – BC 1340 1F)
These racial differences in salary are a stark reminder of the enormous disparities within the social work profession during apartheid and the justifications for the International Federation of Social Workers to boycott South African social workers. Furthermore, while the efforts to increase African enrollment in the profession succeeded, uneven pay scales point to what Crankshaw (2002:23) refers to as the “floating color bar,” whereby black professionals could enter the lowest rungs of the profession but would confront obstacles in accessing senior or managerial positions.
The last official demographic report on social work membership from the South African Statutory Council for Social and Associated Workers prior to apartheid's end indicated that, of the 6,575 registered social workers, 67.5% were white. Of these, 3,288 (74%) chose Afrikaans as their official language. This meant that, at the time, 50% of all registered social workers were Afrikaans-speaking white persons (Gray and Mazibuko 2002:191; Mackintosh 1998). This skewed demographic reflects the success of apartheid's twin goals: segregating professions by race and propelling Afrikaans-speaking white people into professional vocations through affirmative action.
The Creation of Professional Associations
In 1980, the South African Statutory Council for Social and Associated Workers commenced operation. It was a quasi-governmental body that set minimum standards for education, established control over the professional conduct of social work students, and determined social worker qualifications (Drower 2002). While it was an ostensibly non-racial organization, it lacked legitimacy among African and progressive white social workers (Mazibuko and Gray 2004).
Splinter associations arose to meet the needs of different race groups within the profession. The South African Black Social Workers Association was formed in 1945 to represent the interests and concerns of social workers working in African communities (Mazibuko and Gray 2004). The bulk of its activities centered on strengthening community development (Mazibuko 1998). One of the most notable members of this association was Ellen Kuzwayo, who was active in women's self-help movements in the late 1970s and early 1980s (SPEAK 1992). Kuzwayo's efforts (and no doubt her contemporaries’, although these narratives are not well documented in South African archives) were hindered by state repression, and Kuzwayo was detained in the late 1970s.
The Society for Social Workers of South Africa started in 1981 to encourage membership from all race and language groups (Mazibuko and Gray 2004). One of its explicit goals, for example, was to create a non-racial national body, and membership in the organization was to be granted to “societies of social workers which operate in the interest of all social workers only” (Di Bishop speech to the Society for Social Workers: 12 May 1980 – BC 1340 1F). However, its members were predominantly white and English-speaking (Mazibuko and Gray 2004); thus, its goal to create an independent, non-racial association was not achieved.
During the 1980s, the Society for Social Workers led a campaign to end the abuse of children in detention, accomplishing part of its core agenda to redefine social work according to social justice principles. The activities of the Society for Social Workers are discussed in detail in the next section. However, as this review suggests, social work was not a cohesive occupation. Both the South African Black Social Workers Association and the Society for Social Workers of South Africa sought social justice goals, but their activities were not coordinated. In contrast, the state-sanctioned South African Statutory Council for Social Work was focused on the remedial social welfare needs of the white population. The roots of social work profession's divided norms of social justice versus remedial casework were also embedded in the racial structure of its professional associations.
Forms of Resistance by Social Workers to Apartheid Regulations
NGOs, having played a central role in the formation of welfare services in South Africa, became, in the apartheid era, partners with the state in sharing responsibility for welfare services provision (McKendrick 1987:13). The state became the main funder of services, and non-government agencies delivered the services (Lund 2010). A subsidy system was put in place whereby voluntary organizations would perform statutory roles such as child protection and residential care for the elderly and people living with disability. State subsidies were distributed across race groups, with the greatest share allocated to white populations (Patel 2012). NGOs employed social workers who were subsidized by the state, although many also raised funds from private donors.
As racial discrimination was institutionalized in welfare legislation, NGOs were faced with a dilemma of accepting the state subsidies and being complicit in apartheid oppression, or forgoing that source of funding. The majority of NGOs providing statutory services were complicit with the new regulations and reorganized their welfare services in compliance with the state's race segregation statutes; not only did race determine the amount of resources channeled to different groups, but social workers themselves were restricted to serving communities of their own race group.
However, not all NGOs were complicit in the state's race discrimination. The papers of the Quaker Service Project are instructive here as an example of how progressive social work agencies responded to state repression:
The Government's policy on welfare organizations is based on the principle that each population group should serve its own community in the sphere of welfare. The practice of certain welfare organizations of maintaining multi-racial organizations and having representatives of different races at council is contrary to this policy. (Quaker Service Project Files: BC 749 G3.1)
As described by Olive Gibson, a social worker, the Quaker Service Project, Transvaal branch, was a smaller welfare organization in Johannesburg. Organizational records describe the project's constituency as African families who were assisted with problem solving and general counseling. The organization lists two African and one white social workers on staff. A letter sent to the Department of Social Welfare and Pensions read:
The Religious Society of Friends in South Africa is a Christian community whose faith only allows one undivided membership. Consequently it is not possible for us to build into the constitution of one of our subordinate bodies any distinction or separation of its members whether on an ethnic or other basis. (Quaker Service Project Files: BC 749 G3.1)
The project's allegiance to an ethic outside the scope of the state's sanctioned racism gave it grounds to resist the policy of the apartheid government.
Facing growing resistance to apartheid, culminating in the 1976 Soweto riots, the Department of Social Welfare and Pensions, together with other state ministries, instituted a further set of repressive legal measures that entrenched authoritative rule. Private charitable organizations came under tighter state regulation with the passage of the Fundraising Act (1978). But the Department of Social Welfare and Pensions indicated that “it is only compulsory for an organization rendering social welfare services to register as a welfare organization if it requires financial assistance from the state” (Quaker Service Project Files, 1947-1986: BC 749 G.31). The Quaker Service Project thus resolved no longer to apply for state subsidies (Letter to the Minister of Education and Cooperation, March 14, 1985, Quaker Service Project Files).
In a letter written by Will Fox of the project, the conundrum created by these legislative reforms for the project was “whether a government has the right to decide how a religious body conducts its affairs.” Fox went on to explain how the new legislative acts of 1978 presented an interference that the project could not accept:
From its inception the Society of Friends has to defend its right to freedom of action in religious matters.… We must explain why it is impossible for us to comply with certain provisions of the Acts—such as being limited to undertake religious work among our own race.… It may be argued that our overseas support may be cut off. However, I doubt that Friends elsewhere would be willing to continue their support if we complied with the regulations as they now stand. (Quaker Service Project Files, BC 749 G.31)
This letter highlights the choice that faced voluntary organizations: either accept the state subsidy, comply with the state's race ideology, and lose legitimacy among the constituencies the organization represents—or refuse the state subsidy, retain independence from the state, and seek funding from alternative sources.
Press clippings in the Di Bishop papers suggest that the outrage expressed by the Quaker Service Project was widespread. The Cape Times of April 25, 1984, reports how the Southern African Council for Catholic Social Services castigated the South African prime minister for delivering welfare services to other race groups that were “vastly inferior” to white social services and for the separation of welfare by the four official race groups that created a fragmented and unjust welfare system (Di Bishop papers: BC 1340 file 1Fi). While international religious organizations were able to source international funding, mainstream welfare agencies would have had to apply for state subsidies and thus acquiesce to the broader apartheid agenda.
Policy Activism on the Part of Independent Social Workers: The Free the Children Alliance (FCA)
In the mid-1980s, the apartheid regime stepped up its authoritarian control in the form of a state of emergency imposed in some areas on July 21, 1985, and then extended to the rest of the country on June 12, 1986. The powers of the state now included control over people through indefinite detention without trial, control over organizations, control over the media, a ban on any form of boycott or protest, control over schools, and power of entry, search, and seizure without trial (Human Rights Commission: Report #4, Black Sash Advice office BC 1020). Detention without trial extended to both adults and children deemed to endanger state security. Detainees alleged torture and abuse. The Human Rights Commission (1989) indicated that of the 50,000 detainees under the emergency regulations, 35% were children. Black Sash documents cite data issued by the Ministry of Law and Order recording that, between 1985 and 1986, 783 people were killed in detention, including 209 children (BC 668 E 19.1).
The FCA was initiated in October 1986. The Black Sash played a leadership role and was staffed and led by social workers, including Di Bishop and Mary Savage, who formed the Society for Social Workers (discussed above). Like the Quaker Service Project, the Black Sash did not rely on welfare subsidies from the state and thus did not comply with the race-based legislation of the regime. In April 1986, Black Sash records indicate that activists began planning a campaign to make police detainments and police killings of children more visible. A Black Sash working paper identified the need to find possible partners, including “organizations and institutions in various sectors of the community concerned with children, ranging from the Detainees Support Committee to women's organizations in townships and suburbs, to mainstream welfare organizations” (Human Rights Commission: Report #4, Black Sash Advice office BC 1020). The work of the FCA was hampered by the state control over the media, and alliance members were harassed by the state.
Very few welfare organizations in the formal voluntary sector provided support to the FCA, with the exception of the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society, a non-racial organization (Mazibuko, McKendrick, and Patel 1992). Thomas (1990), cited by Mazibuko, McKendrick, and Patel (1992:118), indicates that other “welfare societies did not react because they regarded attempts to protest the government's action as ‘belonging to the political domain’ and outside their range of activities.” However, the conundrum faced by the Quakers (discussed earlier) also suggests that voluntary organizations receiving state subsidies would have hesitated to join the alliance for fear of losing the state subsidy and facing censure for criticizing the state's practices.
In this period, social work held much promise to support democratic transition by supporting policy reform and developing new models of social work practice that incorporated human rights and community development objectives into the original psychosocial individual-casework model. However, their professional ethics, based on social justice and non-racialism, were distorted by both the repressive state apparatus and the racial divisions within the NGOs that employed social workers.
THE SOCIAL WORK PROFESSION AFTER APARTHEID AND THE DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION
As apartheid waned in the early 1990s, culminating in 1994 in the first democratic elections, FCA members began to reflect on the FCA's role in a changing sociopolitical environment. Concerns about children and the AIDS epidemic surfaced (Minutes of the FCA meeting, 29 November 1990: BC668 Black Sash E 19.3). The condition of street children was placed on the agenda, and many mainstream child welfare agencies were called on to support work in this domain (Molo Shongolo meeting minutes, 12/2/1990: BC668 Black Sash E 19.3). Social workers and children's rights activists turned their attention to the socioeconomic consequences of apartheid for children and to responding to the AIDS epidemic.
Race discrimination embedded in apartheid welfare policy was overturned by the new constitution (1996) and in successive welfare policy reforms, including the White Paper on Social Welfare (1997). Social work roles, as described in the white paper, were to be refocused on social justice and mediating social marginalization through community development rather than the individual-casework approach of apartheid (Lombard 2008). The Department of Welfare and Population was established in 1994 and united all the welfare bureaucracies from the Bantustans and white-controlled South Africa (Potgieter 1998). The department later changed its name to the Department of Social Development, reflecting the change in focus from welfare services to community development. The transition to democracy in the 1990s created new challenges for the social work profession, in particular the need to redefine its social mission and professional goals in the context of developmental welfare policy.
The profession made major strides in expanding membership to African social workers. Council for Social Service Professions (CSSP) membership data from 2005 indicate that of its 11,111 members, 50% were African (Earle 2008). Age profiles, however, reflect enduring race asymmetries. Of the CSSP members between 60 and 64 years old, 100% were white; of those 45 to 50, 50% were white. However, of those between 25 and 44, Africans were in the majority. Race asymmetries may also be found in the roles of social workers in welfare agencies. Patel's (2009) review of NGOs in the health and welfare sector found that black women social workers were being hired in entry-level positions, while white women tended to be managers.
My own case study of children's welfare and AIDS care organizations found similar gender and race asymmetries: women were in the majority across all occupational ranks, with African women in junior positions and white women in leadership positions. The profession remained overwhelmingly female, at 89.3% of all members (Earle 2008:19). The welfare bureaucracy was the largest employer, absorbing 25.4% of registered social workers; 20.3% were employed in the voluntary sector (47).
Education for Social Work
Social work, like teaching and nursing, became certified by some 15 South African universities, and the degree is four years in length. The profession's employment absorption is 100% (Earle 2008). In 2007, a standardized bachelor's degree was introduced for all universities. However, educators have struggled to repair the rifts created by separate educational institutions divided by race and language. These concerns are echoed by Mamphiswana and Noyoo (2000:23): “Historically Black Universities … were always seen as ‘bush’ or ‘rural’ universities and their graduates perceived as ill prepared for social work practice compared with their counterparts from Historically White Universities … or the so-called ‘urban universities’.”
A delegation of social work educators from the School of Social Work of the University of Witwatersrand, a historically white university, made a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, mandated by the constitution to enable social and political healing from atrocities committed during apartheid (Sacco and Hoffmann 2004). The submission included 11 points that marked its failure to provide equitable education, including its compliance with apartheid education regulations that prohibited offering undergraduate education to African social workers from 1959 to 1976 (162–63). Biographical research with prospective student social workers (Ross 2010, 2007) suggests that, despite the integration of schools and progressive reforms to the social work curriculum, many African social work students continue to be disadvantaged by uneven resources in the secondary schooling system, poverty, and ill health, and many do not meet university admission requirements.
Professional Associations and the Organizations Employing Social Workers
The CSSP replaced the South African Statutory Council for Social and Associated Workers. However, the CSSP lacked legitimacy, as it failed to create a unified social work profession (Gray and Lombard 2008). In contrast, a powerful organization in the field is the National Coalition of Social Services (NACOSS), which represents the interests of services in the voluntary welfare sector by lobbying government on social welfare services and sharing information with its constituency (Gray and Lombard 2008). It comprises 20 NGOs, and these organizations are a major employer of social workers, composing 20.3% of the social work labor market (Earle 2008). NACOSS members perform state-mandated statutory welfare functions and receive state subsidies for performing these services. NACOSS-affiliated organizations played a central role in the children's policy reform to be discussed in the next section.
Race and gender stratification was embedded in the makeup of leadership of NACOSS and other large NGOs. White social workers lead the organizations, while African social workers are part of the rank and file (Earle, 2008; Patel, 2009). These leaders in turn are at the forefront of policy advocacy, as explained to me by an NGO staffer: “There are very old alliances among social workers who had operated during the anti-apartheid struggle. They represent black community organizations but do not necessarily understand their issues very well.”
This staffer is referencing activities such as the FCA discussed earlier where social workers were at the forefront of the campaign. However, these high-profile social work campaigners were predominantly white women. The same concern about race and representation is echoed by the social worker Ellen Kuzwayo (SPEAK 1992:7): the leaders of the welfare coalitions that represent marginalized black communities are mostly white women.
The Influence of Social Work on AIDS Policy
Early in the AIDS epidemic, social workers identified an important role on the front lines of HIV prevention and care (Loffell 1992). In their scholarship and public advocacy of policy reform, they made the case that children orphaned due to AIDS had experienced particular trauma that required psychosocial forms of support (Cluver, Gardner, and Operario 2007). In AIDS policy and advocacy workshops, social workers described the specific challenges that children rendered parentless by the AIDS epidemic faced, a view built on their expertise in their professional domain—that is, children in special need of care (social worker interview).
One of the struggles social workers had in this negotiation was aligning the profession's twin professional mandates (Healy 2008): to care for children in need, which linked to the profession's individual-casework function, versus the social justice goal of equitable welfare reform for all children (ACESS 2006; Loffell 2008). In the early days of the policy negotiations, social workers found themselves at odds with children's welfare activists who claimed that the focus on orphaned children obscured the plight of all children harmed by racial oppression, poverty, and ill health (Henderson 2006; Meintjes and Giese 2006; Meintjes et al. 2003). Social workers’ inability to reconcile remedial individual casework versus social justice goals created an obstacle for social workers to adopt a clear policy platform for children affected by AIDS.
Social workers played leadership roles in a civil society group lobbying for children and AIDS that asked that “appropriate policy [be] put in place to provide [a] comprehensive social assistance package that addresses the specific needs of orphans and vulnerable children” (ACESS 2006:1). To make their case to the Department of Social Development, an AIDS lobby group called the Children and AIDS Network (CHAIN) was formed. CHAIN was a composite of civil society groups representing different demographic populations and sectoral interests, such as adults living with AIDS, men's and women's groups, and the children's sector. Member organizations from NACOSS (discussed above) were well represented in CHAIN. Membership was garnered through organizational networks and campaigns composed of professionals such as social workers, lawyers, development workers, and psychologists. However, CHAIN struggled to define its key priorities, as described to me by an interviewee (an AIDS lobby advocate):
For community groups, they just care about access to resources, whereas both the welfare department and academics were worried about stigma. For academics also the issue was that because this is a progressive grant, the issue remains why orphans should be treated differently.
This suggests that the CHAIN members had competing priorities, which made it hard to create a clear policy platform.
The formation of NGO networks to lobby for AIDS reform was not limited to the welfare sector. After apartheid, NGOs were apparently unified and in a harmonious relation with the state. International funding was channeled through the state. NGOs and activist organizations aligned their priorities with goals outlined by the state. However, in 1996, the government presented an economic growth policy seen to be in opposition to earlier goals to mitigate poverty and inequality, which led to a reorienting of NGO and activist groups away from the state (Ballard, Habib, and Valodia 2015). By the early 2000s, international funding earmarked for public service reform was redirected back to NGOs as faith in the government's policy goals dissipated, and the slow pace of service delivery was marked. The AIDS denialist stance of the Mbeki administration, refusing to accept the scientific evidence of the link between HIV and AIDS, further exacerbated these tensions.
Social policy reform for children affected by AIDS culminated in the Children's Act of 2008. This legislation addressed legal frameworks for child fostering. The foster care grant is a state social benefit designed to give incentives for non-family members to care for a child. This grant is tied to legal guardianship; all foster care applications are linked to formal guardianship secured through the family court system. Under the 1983 Child Care Act (during apartheid), this provision was a racially based incentive model designed for a closed family unit. The Children's Act reform process set out to redress the racial asymmetries embedded in this protection and to extend the benefit to cover children orphaned due to AIDS. Social workers’ roles were tied to the foster care grant since they were responsible for handling children's cases through the family court system. In their submission to the Children's Amendment Bill public consultation, the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society (2003) argued that the intended legislative reforms of the foster care grant would make it harder for social workers to provide comprehensive care for orphaned children: “Organisations and provincial departments delivering foster care services are in many cases so overloaded and understaffed that there is no possibility of doing meaningful work with the children concerned and their families.”
There was a groundswell of support from child welfare agencies (Johannesburg Child Welfare Society 2003; South Africa National Council for Child Welfare 2003) and other NGOs in the AIDS lobby (ACESS 2004) for the state to include earlier proposals by the South African Law Commission for an alternative grant to support children orphaned due to AIDS and being cared for by kin in the community (South African Law Commission 2002). Unfortunately, these proposals were not incorporated into the final Children's Act (Department of Social Development 2008). Had these proposals passed, social workers’ professional values to expand access to welfare to the greatest number of South Africans would have been accomplished.
During the portfolio committee deliberations on the Children's Act, committee members heard an appeal from the South African Law Commission stating that uptake of the foster care grant had increased by 700%: “Orphans are putting pressure [and the] increase is mainly orphans that are living with relatives … [who] want the grant because they are poor” (Portfolio Committee on Social Development 2007:3). The minutes of the hearing reflect parliamentarians debating the provision of specific forms of assistance to orphans being cared for by relatives. Parliamentarians rejected these civil society proposals of a kinship benefit on the grounds that it would add more social benefits to an already complex array of social welfare assistance. A representative from the official opposition, the Democratic Party, stated in relation to the escalating uptake of the foster care grant, “We cannot afford to pay these amounts of money.” In response, a parliamentarian from the ruling party, the African National Congress, replied, “Some people will say we cannot have one system for blacks and one for whites, just because blacks have been … don't want a child in Limpopo to be treated in a different way to the child in the Western Cape” (3–4).
The enduring legacy of race in welfare services delivery is reflected in this comment by the African National Congress parliamentarian. The foster care grant during apartheid was unequally allocated to white, Indian, and colored populations—hence his reference to the Western Cape, a province with a primarily white and colored population, and to Africans having been denied foster care in Limpopo Province. Expanding foster care to children who were predominantly African and orphaned by the epidemic, the parliamentarian argued, would redress the wrongs committed during apartheid. For members of the NGO lobby groups, the debate between the foster care grant and an alternative grant to support orphans had become politicized (CHAIN member interview). This debate between the children-AIDS lobby and politicians was exacerbated by the racial makeup of the CHAIN lobby, which was predominantly led by white social workers and white academics, while the parliamentarians and Department of Social Development officials were primarily black (children's policy expert interview). These race asymmetries between white social workers (and other professional elites in the professional coalition) and African parliamentarians suggest that the bid to influence the Children's Act failed in part due to the limited race transformation of the NGO voluntary sector and social movements. As discussed earlier in the paper, the majority of leadership and management positions in the voluntary sector continued to be filled by white social workers (Earle 2008; Patel 2009).
Race-related tensions between parliamentarians and the children-AIDS lobby, however, were not the only reason why the AIDS lobby's plan to introduce a new welfare benefit had failed. The breakdown in relations between the state and the AIDS lobby groups coincided with heightening conflict between the state and civil society groups (Ballard, Habib, and Valodia 2015) A pivotal source of tension was the Mbeki Administration's denial of the link between HIV and AIDS and the Department of Health's refusal to initiate the public roll-out of life-prolonging antiretroviral therapy for HIV-positive patients. These political decisions prompted the formation of the Treatment Action Campaign, a social movement protesting the state's AIDS-denialist stance and the avoidable loss of life resulting from the refusal to provide therapy (Fassin 2007; Pienaar 2016). The children-AIDS lobby, led by social workers, worked closely with the Treatment Action Campaign. Thus, the heated AIDS-policy negotiations must be seen in the context of widening political dissent between social movements, NGOs, and the state bureaucracy.
This paper set out to understand the factors that constrain and promote professionalism among social workers during and after apartheid. Obstacles to social worker professionalism were twofold. First, enduring race divides in the profession limited social workers’ ability to advocate as a unified work group for social justice goals. Second, social workers’ dependence on state funding limited the profession's ability to advocate for policy positions that contradicted the Department of Social Development. On the other hand, opportunities for the promotion of social worker professionalism were created by independent NGOs and professional coalitions that enabled social workers to participate in policy advocacy.
Social worker professionalism has been constrained by enduring race divides. Race stratification was mandated by the apartheid state through legislation that segregated educational opportunities and stratified social worker pay scales by race (with white social workers earning higher salaries), and Africans were excluded from membership in the South African Statutory Council for Social and Associated Workers. Splinter associations representing each race group were formed. These race divides created a fragmented professional structure that limited social workers’ participation in political activism as a united entity.
After apartheid, efforts to promote social worker professionalism continue to be hampered by race divides. De facto race restrictions limiting Africans access to education and employment were immediately removed by the state, and race quotas were instituted in the welfare bureaucracy to ensure that Africans are appropriately represented in the work force. However, race stratification in this work group persists through obstacles African workers experience in accessing educational opportunities (Ross 2010) and the employment of trained social workers (Lund 2010, Patel 2009). Furthermore, attempts to create a unified social work association have been unsuccessful (Gray and Lombard 2008), and there has not been coherent representation from social worker associations in welfare policy reform (Lund 2008).
Enduring race divisions in the profession are not the only factor constraining social worker professionalism. Social workers’ dependency on state subsidies restricted their ability to provide independent expertise on policy reform. This finding builds on research on professions in the Global South that shows how professionalism is mediated by the degree of political embeddedness in the state bureaucracy (Liu and Halliday 2011). My study showed how political embeddedness in the state bureaucracy limits the political participation of social workers. In the case of the FCA campaign during apartheid, social workers reliant on state funding did not actively support or participate in the campaign. And after apartheid, many social workers were performing statutory funded roles handling children in the foster system, and they did not challenge the state proposals to expand the bureaucratically intensive foster care grant for fear of losing their funding.
In contrast to social workers’ dependency on the state, which constrained professionalism, organizations employing social workers can create opportunities for social workers to apply their professional values. During apartheid the FCA campaign was supported by activist organizations, such as the Black Sash, that employed social workers. After apartheid, children's rights organizations were influential in the AIDS lobby, leading policy advocacy efforts during the Children's Act (2008) reform process. However, organizations dependent on state funding were restrained in their policy advocacy for fear of losing state sponsorship. Such organizational divisions had consequences for social work professionalism, as the policy participation opportunities they created for social workers (Evetts 2013) were contingent on whether they were employed in independent organizations or those dependent on the state.
Policy coalitions promoted social worker professionalism, as they created autonomous spaces for individual social workers to act for policy reform. Emerging research on professional movements (Harris 2015, 2017) or coalitions among professional elites suggests that professionals do not necessarily represent a cohesive response from the profession. However, they have a strong potential to advance progressive policy reform. In the case of social workers in South Africa, the profession's limited monopoly over its own domain of expertise meant that it relied on coalitions to bolster its diminished ability to influence policy.
While organizations and coalitions may promote the participation of individual social workers in policy reform, they also reproduce race hierarchy, with white professionals securing leadership positions. These are informal processes of stratification (Muzio and Kirkpatrick 2011), since NGOs and coalitions are not subject to the same race employment quotas as the welfare bureaucracy. These trends are observed in a range of professions in South Africa (Bonnin and Ruggunan 2013; Hammond, Clayton, and Arnold 2012). This leads to the phenomenon of restratification, where a divide grows in organizations between professionals in the upper echelons of the organizational hierarchy and the rank-and-file workers (Freidson 2001). These informal processes of stratification in organizations exacerbated fragmentation in the profession, leading to the dominance of white social workers in policy advocacy leadership positions.
This analysis was hampered by gaps in the archival record of the activities of African social workers during apartheid. These gaps might be due to the police surveillance of African social workers during apartheid, which meant that activists were hesitant to leave a paper trail. Furthermore, many African social workers labored in marginalized communities (including the activities of the South African Black Social Workers Association) where literacy was low; hence written records were scarce. This imbalance of the historical record over-represents the narratives of white social workers and minimizes the priorities of African social workers, whose professional values may have differed from their white colleagues. I attempted to bridge this gap with secondary sources; however, these gaps highlight the need for oral histories of African social workers during apartheid and afterward.
In conclusion, professionalism in South Africa has received limited attention (Williams 2007), impeding understanding of how health and social service professions are contributing to public services reform in the aftermath of apartheid. The study findings show that social workers’ efforts to influence social policy reform were constrained by enduring race divides due to apartheid, and dependence on the state in both time periods. Social service organizations and policy coalitions enabled social workers to participate in policy reform in an individual capacity, but their impact was marginal due to the constraints discussed above. These findings warrant further research into the intersections between professionals and professionalism and complex forms of governance and work organization prominent in the Global South.