Written by – Esmé Brink

At times traumatic, and not often rewarding. The social work profession is a calling, one that requires a passion for people and their wellbeing.

The 2019 World Social Work Day theme highlights ‘Promoting the Importance of Human Relationships’. World Social Work Day is on 19 March 2019. This year’s theme focuses on the social relationships between people’s essential relationships with each other, their environments and their futures.

Social work is a profession set on helping individuals, groups and communities to improve their wellbeing, and social workers often interact with the most vulnerable members of society with the aim of improving their lives and ultimately their futures.

Depending on a person’s area of interest and experience, the role of a social worker and the field in which they focus can vary significantly from one position to another.

Badisa is a faith-based social welfare organisation that provides professional social welfare services. The organisation started as the welfare services of the Dutch Reformed Church (Western Cape) and the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (Cape) and has grown to also provide these services in partnership with stakeholders such as the local and provincial government, the corporate sector and other non-profit organisations.

Badisa’s social workers provide services in the following areas:

  • Children and families
  • Elderly care
  • Disability care
  • Substance dependency

South Africa’s legacy of social work

Winnie Mandela , April 1992 Soweto

Nelson Mandela once said, “Our human compassion binds us to one another – not in pity or patronisingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” 

According to Africa Impact, before her marriage to Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela Mandela was already making her mark. Despite the restrictions on the education of black people, she earned a degree and became the first qualified black social worker in the country. She was offered a scholarship to study further in the USA but chose to remain in South Africa and take up a position at South Africa’s largest hospital. She undertook pioneering infant mortality research in a township that found ten deaths in every thousand births.  Similarly, Albertina Sisulu was also a social worker.

The social worker’s critical role in society

Social workers are critical members of society who work diligently to relieve suffering and to improve the lives of individuals and people in need. Yet, as is often misunderstood, social workers do not solve people’s problems. Instead, they work closely with their clients and communities to help them discover new and innovative ways to cope with, or resolve the challenges they face, thereby giving them the knowledge, skills, and empowerment they need to improve their circumstances.

According to the South African Council for Social Service Professions (SACSSP), social work is one of a few helping professions with a code of ethics that is clear about its moral mission to empower clients and address both private problems and public issues, particularly for those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable. These core values include:

  • Social justice
  • Respect for people’s worth and dignity
  • Competence
  • Integrity
  • Professional responsibility
  • Service delivery

Bearing the brunt

Says, Ronel van Zyl (Director: Social Work at Badisa): “Social workers are exposed to a great deal of criticism, often because individuals or members of society do not understand the role of the social worker, or only reach out for help when everything else has already failed. I believe that the words of Franklin Roosevelt, as quoted by President Ramaphosa during his State of the Nation Address, apply to every social worker.”

“It is not the critic that counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust, and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs; who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great elevations; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat:”

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