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Trailblazers in social work

- Wits University

From addressing white poverty to the injustices of apartheid, the Department of Social Work has held individuals, families and communities together.

The Department of Social Work at Wits has achieved many feats since its birth in 1937 and stands proud with a litany of achievements, luminaries and rebels who’ve championed change.

Alumni include feminists, struggle icons and social agents such as former first ladies, Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela and Zanele Mbeki founder of the Women's Development Bank, which was established to offer microfinance to poor South African women; and Dr Motlatjie Anne Letsebe, former deputy director-general in the presidency.

On Thursday, 20 October 2022, the Department hosted a ceremony to celebrate its 85th anniversary and contribution to various structures of society. The event was attended by alumni, including members of the first group of African students who registered in the Department after a long struggle with the then ruling government.

Trailblazers in Social Work

Lestebe who read for her Higher Diploma in Advanced Social Work Practice in the late 1970s went down memory lane and recalled the bravery displayed by Professor Cecil Muller, credited for opening doors for African students to pursue higher degrees in the field.

“She managed to get funding from Anglo American to establish the Centre of Social Development at Wits. Through the Centre, we were categorised as employees so that we could receive funding and attend classes in the evening. She was a phenomenal woman. She was a rebel rouser and she did all the things that people thought shouldn’t be done,” said Lestebe of Muller.  

Letsebe and her class were only able to register as students just before they completed their studies. Muller’s persistence deserves recognition added Monica Dube, founder of Dube and Pottas Inc., which employs 34 social workers operating in medical practice. As with other academics at Wits, Muller played a role in supporting detainees and students hounded by apartheid police, as Dube once found herself.

In earlier years, the report titled The Poor White Problem in South Africa: Report of the Carnegie Commission" published in 1932 around the poverty among white South Africans, also informed the department’s mission to produce graduates who were ready for the job and challenges facing society. The report focused on the economic, psychological, educational, health, and social aspects of white poverty.

Proud Moments and the future

Boasting about the academic and research achievements, Dr Busisiwe Nkala-Dlamini, Head of the Department told students and guests that the Department was the first in the country to acknowledge the need for a transformed curriculum.

“In 1983 the Department made a conscious decision to include African perspectives in the curriculum. They did this by publishing and using the material in their teaching. They were, however, cognisant that there was not sufficient literature. This is one of the agendas, high on the list of the department, to produce African perspective literature and prescribe it in teaching. As a leading research-intensive university we are building and shaping cadres, who will use their research and practice to build a strong democratic ethos in society.”

Nkala-Dlamini said the department was committed to quality teaching and had a high number of PhDed lectures. “Eleven out of 12 teaching staff hold PhD’s” a significant achievement as the quality of staff and research output impacts teaching quality.

Staying ahead of the times, the Department achieved a major milestone in 2019 when it was accredited as the first department in the country to provide masters in the field of school social work. The first cohort was enrolled in 2021 and will graduate in 2022.

Alumni heaped praise on the Department for preparing them well for the world of work and dealing with clients.

PhD candidate and Top 200 Young South African nominee Aldridge Munyoro attested to this and read feedback from graduates who stated that the Social Work In-Practice module was beyond excellent.

“Social work gave me everything,” said Mbeki a successful development activist and social entrepreneur.

“The methodology, from case-work, group work, social policy, research – this is what I have used everywhere.”

She encouraged young graduates to use their skills beyond social work and not to wait for government employment.

This call supported earlier speakers and social workers from different industries and times who reflected on the contribution of social work to various sectors. Prof. Jean Triegaardt spoke about the evolving profession in South Africa, Dr Letsebe reflected on social work in the public sector, Mrs Vicky Mkhize on the distinct contributions to the private sector and Ms Tasneem Bhula on the contributions of social work in the non-government sector.