The State of the University of the Witwatersrand Social Policy Training in South Africa

By Noyoo, Ndangwa | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The State of the University of the Witwatersrand Social Policy Training in South Africa


Noyoo, Ndangwa, Journal of Social Work Education


THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND (Wits) School of Social Work in South Africa does not offer a core course on social policy or social analysis. During the years of apartheid it was not offered at all, because social policy was perceived as an arm of the apartheid government. Thus, it seemed that teaching it would have endorsed the ideals of the apartheid state. Wits, like other liberal, English-speaking universities, was opposed to the excesses of the apartheid state. In this regard, social policy training was not given paramount importance as a sign of rejecting the legitimacy of the apartheid system (B.W. McKendrick, Wits School of Social Work, personal interview, May 1998).

But the foregoing assertions raise immediate questions. How justifiable was this reaction in light of the fact that social policy training is not necessarily an authentication and endorsement of government policy, whether in a democratic or authoritarian system of governance? Social policy training should provide a framework that enables students to critically analyze all the underlying facets that shape and mold government policies, and not only social policy. Students would be able to examine broader policy issues and administrative practices in areas such as health administration, social security, education, employment services, community care, and housing management, circumstances in which people's well-being is likely to be impaired, as well as issues relating to social disadvantage, including race, gender and poverty. (Spicker, 1995).

In an unjust political system like apartheid, social policy training could have served as a benchmark for analyzing ideologies and power relations and how they impinged upon social service provisions for various segments of the population. When the illuminated background information is linked to social work education in the apartheid sociopolitical and economic orders, it will therefore be appreciated that Wits School of Social Work was merely reflecting the contradictions that are packaged with social work education. It is important to note that:

   The history of social work education and practice is, in part, a history of
   massive ideological distortion. Examination of the philosophy and theory of
   social work reveals a degree of commitment to bourgeois values and
   capitalist models of social welfare of which most social workers have
   themselves been unaware. Conceptualizations about social work are primarily
   social products and reflect the particular socio-economic base upon which
   most social welfare institutions have grown. (Leonard, 1975, p. 46)

Thus, in reality social work training emphasized the preparation of students for individual practice that was therapeutic or restorative and directed at largely urban, not rural people (McKendrick, 1990).

Background on Wits

Wits achieved full university status in 1922, having grown out of the Kimberley-based South African School of Mines established in 1896. It is located in Johannesburg, the largest metropolitan area and the industrial and commercial heart of South Africa. With 10 faculties and 99 departments, plus 66 research entities, Wits enrolls more than 18,000 students. Wits falls under the realm of universities referred to as Historically White Universities (HWUs), in South Africa. HWUs denote English- and Afrikaans-speaking universities, and under the apartheid system prior to the democratic elections of 1994, this label had much meaning. There are 21 universities in South Africa, and under apartheid 9 historically black universities (HBUs) were designated for black population groups (Africans, "Coloureds"--people of mixed race descent--and Indians), while the remaining 12 were HWUs split among English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites. Legislation espousing the ideals of separate development across population groups entrenched the status of HBUs, which were marginal to the mainstream of higher education. …

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