In a country where violent crime has become part of the norm, where rape and sexual assault is reported to be of the highest in the world and where many South Africans live in abject poverty, social workers have become the foot soldiers working on the ground to combat the social issues that arise from these societal problems. For Professor Lambert Engelbrecht, an Associate Professor in social work and chair of the Social Work Department at Stellenbosch University, social workers have become essential in the fight to protect the most vulnerable in society. But, while this is the case, their quest is not an easy one with many having to work in a system that often do not provide them with the resources needed to make the impact they would like to.
This is something that Engelbrecht has seen in his own research over the years.
“My research during my Masters and doctoral studies focused on the supervision and management within the social work discipline and thanks to the papers that followed from that research, I participated in the Marie Skłodowska Curie International Research and Staff Exchange Scheme (IRSES) where I became involved in projects where we studied the financial philosophy of business principles applied in social work or what is referred to as neoliberalism and the impact of this in various countries. We also compared results between countries and the impact of this model of management on social work services," explains Engelbrecht.
The research was inspired by the realisation that ironically the individual was often overlooked in the social work environment. A recent example of such a case, still fresh in the memories of many South Africans, led to the death of at least 143 vulnerable patients who were moved from Life Esidimeni, a state-run facility, to a number of NGOs that were ill prepared to accommodate these patients.
“This is an example of how the Minister of Health tried to cut spending on persons with mental health problems but ended up doing so at the expense of the end user. The dehumanisation of vulnerable persons for the sake of financial sustainability showed that what may be considered to be better management principles that would lead to better services is often not what transpires in reality. Saving on costs is not always better for the client. This is also why I empathise with the protest marches by social workers in 2017 against the horrible working conditions they are exposed to because often what is just a political ball game at the top tend to impact extensively on those on the ground. There are many social workers out there with no telephones, computers or cars that are expected to deliver social services to the most vulnerable in our society."
While Engelbrecht, who received the Stals Prize for Social Work from the South African Academy for Science and Arts in June 2017, no longer practices as a social worker, he has been pouring his expertise into research and educating up-and-coming social workers at the Social Work Department since 2003. Most of his time is spent focusing on the supervision and management of social workers and the training of social work students. This contribution as well as his work on the effects of neo-liberalism on social work service delivery is precisely why Engelbrecht received the Stals Prize. His research has already delivered more than 90 scientific outputs and he is highly regarded both locally and internationally. What makes this achievement even more unique, is the fact that Engelbrecht is only the third academic within the social work discipline to receive the prize, with one other scholar from the SU department, Prof Sulina Green, having received it in 2011.
Like the department's philosophy – “we cultivate thought leaders in social development" – Engelbrecht and his colleagues focus on equipping students to think three dimensional and holistically.
“In order to be prepared for what they will face in the field, we have to teach our students to think beyond assisting the most vulnerable or those with mental health issues, but to start looking at the structures within which they work and this involves understanding the micro and macro levels issues that impact on your industry and being able to engage with government at local and national level to bring about change.
“We find that a lot of social workers are caught up in the day-to-day activities and the many crises they have to deal with and that functioning at another level, for example engaging with donors or working on an awareness campaign in communities versus helping a neglected child that need help now, will always come second."
However, says Engelbrecht, the way that funding is spent within social work structures require that one starts looking at it like a business too. This is the reason that students that enter their lecture halls are taught to also ask questions about conditions within the field and learn how to put pressure on government structures through policy and advocacy groups to ensure they support those in the trenches more effectively.
At SU, about 100 new students register for a degree in social work each year with about 300 undergraduate and postgraduate students studying at the department at any given time. In 2017 these students rendered social work services as part of their practice education to 43 welfare organisations where they were supervised by 45 social workers. The students were involved in 94 community projects and facilitated 197 small groups. They were also involved in intervention to 579 families and individuals, and mentored 90 vulnerable children. In addition the students completed 57 research projects.
“So as you can see, social work is an intensive course, because you are expected to do the work as you are learning about it."
Asked about the high levels of violence and in particular child murders that have become quite prevalent in South Africa, Engelbrecht admits that poverty still has a major impact on the social wellbeing of South Africans in underprivileged communities. It's something the students see on a daily basis too.
“When there is poverty it can also lead to turmoil within families because when there is no money, people tend to escape by abusing alcohol and drugs. You also find that children are often without supervision in poor communities and older kids are recruited into gangs because of a lack of supervision. This is the case in many instances because parents can often not afford child care when they work and thus children are left in the care of slightly older siblings, neighbours or older family members like a grandmother or grandfather."
The students, says Engelbrecht are therefore prepared during their studies to the deal with the realities of South African society as far as possible. “They are confronted with both academic expectations and with emotional challenges that other students are not necessarily facing."
“While people often feel sorry for social workers due to the kind of work they do for little compensation and also see it as a course that does not required much academic capacity, very few people realise that social work is not an easy programme to follow, that students are often expected to think critically from the first day they arrive in class, and that both the emotional and academic requirements are extremely high. There is a high demand in the field for social work graduates from Stellenbosch University owing to our student attributes which results in thought leaders, engaged citizens, well-rounded individuals and dynamic professionals. Therefore, our focus of training is not just on social work in local, traditional welfare organisations, but we also prepare students to work in diverse industries, contexts and internationally. We are extremely proud of the fact that 80% of our Masters' students passed their external moderated research theses in 2017 cum laude."
For Engelbrecht, in spite of the fact that the social problems that social workers deal with can sometimes seem never ending, seeing the rewards of his efforts, be it through his work with students, through his research, or the time he spent in the field, has been the most satisfying aspect of his job.
One of those moments for Engelbrecht happened in the mid-eighties in his third year of undergraduate studies. While doing community work in Wellington, he set up an informal care group for elderly, disadvantaged people in the town. A decade later, after he completed his studies, the group had developed into a fully-fledged service centre with a meals-on-wheels service as well.
“I started the club for the elderly with 20 persons from the community. Nella, one of the persons who attended the group, suggested that we call it Gemoedrus back then. Our aim was to look at the type of services that the elderly community needed and to try and get those services provided through Gemoedsrus service centre," says Engelbrecht who assisted the group with finding facilities and also helped them find resources they could access for the group.
“I look back on that and realise that sometimes one plants a small seed that grows into something enormous and that just being there at the beginning, making a small contribution made a difference in the lives of many people for generations to come."
The most important lesson he has learnt over the years, he says, is to learn to listen more than one speaks.
“When I do my research I realise that my achievements in social work is not my own, it is owing to the voices of the unheard that are being heard, and so even the Stals Prize is an award that I received through the contributions of many other people."
Photo: Prof Engelbrecht with the Stals Prize (middle) he received from the South African Academy for Science and Arts in June 2017. With him is (left) Prof Wessel Pienaar (Chairperson of the South African Academy of Science and Arts) and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University, Prof Anthony Leysens. (Photo supplied)