Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Op-Ed

The social work sector speaks out: A radical response is urgently needed

The social work sector speaks out: A radical response is urgently needed
Poverty and hunger. (Photo:

The idea of a Social Work Action Network (SWAN) evolved recently when some in social work questioned the sector’s silence in the face of the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa. It was felt that there was a need for leadership and for a voice, both of which have largely been absent.


Aware of the critical and radical social work movement, SWAN-International, three practitioners and academics initiated a SWAN-SA WhatsApp group on 8 May, inviting people from the social work sector to join. Within a few hours, about 120 social work practitioners, students, and academics had joined.

On 18 May, we held a live webinar with about 80 participants, where the consensus was that there is a need for a radical/critical movement in the social work sector. We do not accept the status quo, we challenge structural causes of social problems and, being committed to social justice, we need to speak out against ongoing oppression, racism, exploitation and dehumanisation of South Africans. Instead of pathologising victims of these problems, we blame the system that creates these conditions. We therefore recognise the need to collaborate and campaign with other social movements such as the C19 People’s Coalition, the Food Sovereignty Campaign and Cry of the Xcluded, whose demands speak directly to social work.

SWAN-SA takes the position that Covid-19 has further exposed the forces driving structural inequalities in South African society, determining people’s life and death struggles for survival. Inequality, poverty and unemployment, driven by racial capitalism, continue to shape the historic and ongoing schisms in South Africa between the mainly white elite, the black working class and precariat. These socioeconomic realities during Covid-19, together with inequalities associated with the climate emergency, pose a triple burden on our society.

Despite the government’s efforts to respond to Covid-19, the vast majority of our people continue to suffer and bear immense hardships. The lack of income security, hunger and poor nutrition, and untenable housing conditions where the majority of poor and low-income households live in informal housing and overcrowded spaces, has increased the vulnerability of poor and working-class communities, where high unemployment puts pressure on households with no access to social security. These living conditions make them more susceptible to poverty, violence and additional insecurities.

Women specifically also find themselves exploited in an inequitable distribution of care and unpaid care work, further perpetuating their vulnerability. Here we note with alarm the broad and general increase in gender-based violence. The escalation of physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse leaves women and children with no escape from their abusers.

The Covid-19 crisis further exacerbates the desperate and dire living conditions of the majority of South Africans – rural and urban. It is essential that this crisis becomes an opportunity for structural change to the current neoliberal economic system driving these inequalities. Relying on dollar-based loans from the IMF and World Bank will lock South Africa into a debt spiral and austerity measures, which we can ill afford. The conditionality of such loans must be transparent and made public.

The social service sector, which includes social work and social services practitioners, students and educators, are best placed to provide meaningful crisis intervention for vulnerable people.

Social security in South Africa remains an issue. Of course, people would rather work than queue for meagre grants if employment were available, where the expanded unemployment figure is at 38%. The social work sector has argued for a Basic Income Grant as universal income for all those between 18 and 60. During this crisis, the government has introduced a similar COVID Social Relief of Distress grant as a time-bound intervention. This is an inadequate and unacceptable intervention because in most cases, it may be the only form of income for a household. Recent studies by the Food Sovereignty Campaign reveal that an essential basket of goods (38 food items) has increased from R3,221 to R3,470. Further, the online application system is oppressive, as being destitute does not allow the prioritisation of smartphones, email addresses and banking accounts. This further dehumanises poor people.

Similarly, the minimal increase by R300 per child of the child support grant for only May, and thereafter an amount of R500 per caregiver,  is unjustifiable. To our knowledge, the child and family sector was not consulted. During lockdown, all children stayed at home, increasing financial pressure on the household through children going without school and/or the soup kitchen meals, plus an increase in consumption of utilities. The government cannot justifiably revert to R440 per child from June. There has to be immediate and urgent consultations with the child and family sector to determine a suitable child support amount. It is also concerning that no strategies have been put in place to protect vulnerable persons with disabilities during the pandemic. 

All this points to a dire need for the Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, to expand her consultation with the social service professions’ sector to understand the extent and scope of social work services.

The social service sector, which includes social work and social services practitioners, students and educators, are best placed to provide meaningful crisis intervention for vulnerable people. However, we have not been included as primary attenders and responders to the Covid-19 crisis. Mental health, trauma, domestic violence, child abuse, bereavement, grief support, therapy and other psychosocial interventions, were not considered to be essential services. Rather, social workers were mainly designated as distributors of food parcels and assessors of Covid-19 social security eligibility.

Food insecurity is a grave challenge in our country with an estimated 30 million people experiencing food stress and hunger. Government’s food aid, humanitarian and other food security initiatives demonstrate the commitment to address hunger to a certain extent. Nonetheless, distribution mechanisms perpetuate gross indignity associated with poverty. Addressing chronic hunger during a crisis hardly begins to address the structural determinants of poverty. Therefore, small-scale farmers must be deemed as an essential service for food security. They should be assisted, supported and prioritised to provide local markets with produce and to promote localised food supply. 

All this points to a dire need for the Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, to expand her consultation with the social service professions’ sector to understand the extent and scope of social work services. Social service workers, specifically trained to render such services, must be deployed in strategic interventions to assist, for example, in formulating Covid-19 community spread prevention programmes, coping initiatives, mental health interventions, community education and awareness campaigns,  bereavement counselling and psychosocial support to families. Post Covid-19, deepened inequality itself will need psychosocial intervention and structural reform.

During the lockdown, violent SANDF and SAPS actions have left people harassed, brutalised and even dead. Although the president has warned that those entities will be dealt with, to date no one has been held accountable for the blatant abuse of the most oppressed groups in society. 

As usual, those living precariously, such as undocumented individuals from other African countries, migrant workers, and farm and domestic workers bear the brunt of further discrimination and exploitation. Although there may be provisions for these groups in terms of regulations, rights and protections, many of them cannot access or realise these. The government should continue to find ways to extend support to such vulnerable groups. 

The actions and agenda of the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, shocks us.

It is obvious that the higher education sector is in crisis, with inequities in online learning implementation among historically more privileged universities at the end of April, while disadvantaged universities have not been able to start due to resource deprivation and inaccessibility. The latest announcement of the allocation of data for NSFAS students for three months means nothing in contexts of deprivation, poor or no connectivity and lack of electricity. The minister must identify a strategy to address lack of access to digital resources, network coverage and other socioeconomic challenges such as lack of equipment, electricity and the living conditions that hamper learning.  Failure to deal with such complex challenges will perpetuate the already existing educational inequities in the sector. A socially just decision would be that of allowing all online learning activities to happen in the context of all students having access to the same resources and learning conditions.

This crisis has shown that it is possible for the government to make positive changes both in resource distribution and in the natural environment.

The department of basic education was set to reopen schools on 1 June. Together with organised teacher unions, we challenge this decision by Minister Angie Motshekga. We have no confidence in the department of basic education, as it appears that there is no adequate plan for the safety of children. Safe working conditions for school personnel, classroom overcrowding, scholar transportation (including for children of farmworkers), the repair of those schools that were vandalised, and assurance around the management of childrens’ confidential medical information should be guaranteed before such reopening. The inappropriate decision-making and lack of communication lead to confusion and anxiety. It is evident that advantaged schools will open ahead of others, simply transposing inequalities also seen in the higher education sector.

Frontline health and care workers still plead for personal protective equipment (PPE) while facing the highest levels of risk. No worker should be required to work where they face personal health risks, without adequate provisions for safety and protection.

Finally, what is required is collective action and solidarity with efforts towards equity and redistribution. All social work and social service students, practitioners and educators are able to offer innovative ways to deal with the devastating effects of Covid-19 and its aftermath on communities. However, there is a need for systemic change.

This crisis has shown that it is possible for the government to make positive changes both in resource distribution and in the natural environment. Achieving these positive changes are political decisions. It is unconscionable that the majority of South Africans should be living in conditions of socioeconomic and health precarity while there is enough wealth to achieve wellbeing for all. 

Right now, there is a further risk of ‘disaster capitalism’, which deepens inequalities and enriches elites during large-scale crises. As the Social Work Action Network (South Africa), we do not see Covid-19 as separate from broader structural problems of race-based inequality, corporate greed, extractivism, and the climate emergency. 

We call for a united front in working for social, economic, health and environmental justice for all South Africans. DM/MC

Yasmin Jessie Turton is a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg; Linda Harms-Smith is based at the Robert Gordon University, Scotland and a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg; Zibonele Zimba is a lecturer at Stellenbosch University; Nevashnee Perumal is a lecturer at Nelson Mandela University. All write in their personal capacities.

This article is based on a statement signed by 123 social work practitioners, academics, and students, and sent on the 29 May to the Council for Social Service Professionals (SACSSP), the Association of South African Social Work Education Institutions (ASASWEI) and Sangonet. For further information, please email the Social Work Action Network South Africa on [email protected]. or contact us through our Facebook page: 


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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