IASSW AIETS logoSocial Dialogue Magazine
Article 4 main image
04 author

Linda Harms-Smith,
School of Applied Social Studies, Robert Gordon University, United Kingdom

Horrible Histories: Tracing ‘Europe’ in The South. The Case of South Africa.

South African social work stands indicted with culpability for its origins in and complicity with colonialism and Apartheid in its ideologies, knowledge base, discourse and practice (McKendrick, 1999; Harms-Smith, 2014). However, British and Dutch colonisation and their logical successor, Apartheid, was the context within which social work evolved in South Africa. It arose from the consequences of racist capitalism and was characterised by discourses of charity, philanthropy and social control. Generally, social work’s roots are found in processes of industrialisation and urbanisation in emerging capitalist societies of the 18th and 19th centuries (Ferguson, 2008), and in South Africa, in the capitalist imperialist project of colonisation and racist oppression. However, there are also narratives of hope and resistance in those dark times. This short article explores these contradictory histories – the formal narratives at times celebrating, from a position of collective denial, the maintenance of and complicity with the status quo and also those informal narratives of subversion, resistance and liberation

The expectation that South Africa would achieve the ideal of a rainbow nation, at peace with itself and the world (Nelson Mandela, 1994) has continued to evade a society which still struggles with structural oppression, racism, extreme poverty, racialized inequality and currently, overall the highest levels of inequality in the world (Harms-Smith, 2014; Statistics South Africa, 2019; World population review, 2019).

The transition from Apartheid in the early 1990s was a political rather than a social and economic liberation, and the class and race- based inequality, structural oppression, racism and internalised oppression are an ongoing challenge (Fanon, 1967; Stevens, 2003; Duncan, 2003). In spite of South Africa having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, socio-economic rights are aspirational in the ideal rather than realised materially (Mugambizi and Mugambizi, 2005). The current South African context of inequality is ascribed to colonisation and Apartheid’s ongoing consequences, together with global and local neo-liberal economic environments (Terreblanche, 2012; Bond, 2013), asymmetrical power relations and a race and class based society (Duncan, 2003; Stevens, 2003).

A liberal understanding of Apartheid as a consequence of Afrikaner nationalism is insufficient. These realities must be understood in terms of an historical context of colonial mercantile capitalism and later, capital industrialization and exploitative, racist relations of production (Patel, 2013). The oppressive colonial project not only decimated peoples and expropriated land and resources, but also subjugated and destroyed histories, traditional ways and culture (Masson and Harms-Smith, 2019; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2013). Colonialism and imperialism perpetuated by Britain and the Netherlands established persisting structural inequalities based on race, class and gender (Patel, 2013), further entrenched by the institutionalized racism and inequality of Apartheid. According to Legassik, (2008, p.441) “The colonial conquest by the mercantile Dutch East India Company and the British resulted in “racism, slavery, attempted genocide, the expropriation of land of indigenous people and the exploitation of their labour as forced labour. Here lie the roots of national oppression.”

Missionary workers of philanthropic and liberal organisations, such as the London Missionary Society set out to convert ‘heathen’ to Christianity, spread ‘civilisation’ and teach the poor to be patient and obedient and to accept their lowly position in life. This appeared to diminish the injustice of the inequalities between themselves and the rich (Majeke, 1953). Missionary ideology included the expansion of the empire:

“While our missionaries are everywhere scattering the seeds of civilisation...they are extending the British empire ... Wherever the missionary places his standard among a savage tribe, their prejudices against the colonial government give way, their dependence upon the colony is increased by the creation of artificial wants...Industry, trade and agriculture spring up...and every genuine convert becomes the friend and ally of the colonial government” (Philip, 1821, cited by Bundy, 1979, p. 39).

Later, the systems of Apartheid subjugated ‘black’ South Africans through violent and unjust means including land and resource appropriation, unjust and repressive laws; curtailment of movement and exploitative labour practices which generated excessive wealth for white South Africans (Coovadia et al, 2009). Pernicious policies ensured that black people were positioned lowest in all areas of social and economic provision, barely able to survive. Privilege was preserved for white property-rich South Africans while black South Africans were removed forcibly into geographically designated areas, with little or no basic services, poor health and education and violently induced deprivation (Noyoo, 2003).

The complicity of social work in racist capitalism and oppression as perpetrated by European colonialism and Apartheid, especially during the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, was therefore in keeping with its roots. It is from within these ideologies that social work finds its early formation in South Africa – perhaps inevitable that it stands indicted as complicit in oppressive practices, responsible for racist status quo maintenance, and enabling state ideologies of white supremacy.

04 article image

How could this have been?

The origin of social work in South Africa is fraught with competing histories and narratives, with a prevalence of individualist, paternalistic, colonial and white hegemonic discourses (Harms-Smith, 2014). In spite of some liberalism, formal textual sources display predominantly colonial and apartheid ideologies of racism, eugenics, patriarchy and social control. Understood in Gramscian terms, this was to be expected as it is well known that state machinery is able to create hegemonic control over knowledge and thought (Flynn, 2019; Garret, 2018).

South African social work knowledge and practice was maintained in this way both through control by the political realm, or “the state,” through force and laws but also through subtle maintenance by “civil society,” the private realm, producing consent without threat of force (Gramsci, 1935 cited by Roelofs, 2007, p. 479). Social work systems of knowledge and practice generally and in South Africa particularly, are known to have been nurtured historically on Western, predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Eurocentric systems of thought. Ironically, these also birthed the global system of capitalist imperialism and colonialism, the consequences of which these professionals sought to address (Ferguson, 2008).

The evolution and history of social work in South Africa unfolds within the framework of colonial and apartheid welfare policies (MacPherson and Midgely, 1987) leading to complicity with racialised, white supremist goals of the Apartheid era South African welfare system (Patel, 2005).

Social work culpability: from eugenics to Apartheid

As in Britain, dominant explanations for poverty and ‘unrest’ were found in social Darwinism and eugenics that maintained that some people were beyond help due to their weak genetic inheritance (Ferguson and Woodward, 2009, p. 18). The strong racist discourse of eugenics formed a basis for the development of social work in South Africa during the 1920s and 1930s (Harms-Smith, 2014).

A racist “sanitation syndrome” focusing on ‘white’ communities arose due to concerns that ‘black’ inhabitants would spread infection, which led to removals and racial segregation (Worden, 2008, p. 47). Liberal ideologies as expressed in organisations such as the Race Welfare Society, founded in 1930 also used theories of eugenics to limit the fertility of ‘poor whites’, cultivate a healthy and productive ‘white’ population and avoid ‘white’ race degeneration (Legassik,1976). Liberal ideologies served to project an appearance of concern with social care and wellbeing, obscuring the underlying racist paternalism.

And so it was that social work, within the framework of state policy and legislation, comfortably embraced liberal ‘status quo maintenance’ activities.

Of significance was the Carnegie Commission of Inquiry of 1932 into the causes of ‘white’ poverty, which played an important role in solidifying white Afrikaner political and economic dominance. It excluded any exploration of ‘black’ poverty, while the report of the Commission shaped the development of social welfare and social work in South Africa in terms of policy, ideology and the discipline of social work. It made recommendations about segregation and “was seen to have formed the ideological and sociological motivation for apartheid” (Bowers-Du Toit, 2014, p. 513). This ‘Poor White Study’, led to the rise of the National Party with the slogan in the 1948 general elections, “The white man must remain master” (Carnegie corporation of New York, 2004). Following its recommendations, the Department of Social Welfare was established in 1937.

04 article image

The Carnegie Report influenced the formalization and professionalization of social work furthering the hegemonic position that “The poor needed to be rehabilitated through developing new personal and psychological qualities” (Seekings, 2008, p. 521). This laid the grounds for social work’s remedial and pathologising nature as well as the initial curricula in social work education focussing on the individual and rehabilitation (Harms-Smith, 2014).

Social work’s collaboration with racist policies of segregation and unequal services and later apartheid, occurred as part of liberal efforts of the early 1930s. Support for policies which advanced white interests and claimed to ‘protected’ Africans, fitted with liberal ideologies and policies of the time, to structure and create a separate ‘native world’ based on the religion and ethics of the white ruling minority (Harms-Smith, 2014). The 1936 report of the Native Affairs Commission stated:

“... The ideal is to recreate a Bantu world which shall be enlightened by our religion and ethics, and instructed by our economic experience, whether that world lives and works in European areas or whether it is separate from the Europeans as in the Native Reserves...” (Legassick, 1976, p. 235)

Liberalism acted through institutions to reproduce the structures of South African racialised capitalism (Legassick, 1979). Given the liberal and philanthropic history of social work, justifying participation in these activities would have been easy.

When considering the scale of oppression, violence, hardship and suffering of the majority of the population through Apartheid, and the absence of an appropriate social work response, the nature of social work as an instrument of the state is clearly evident. By 1960, “welfare became synonymous with white welfare under Nationalist rule. As ‘white’ families stabilised and poverty declined, government welfare services could cope with the small numbers who fell through the cracks.” (Glaser, 2005, p. 327). The provision of welfare services among African people was greatly neglected and served to violate human rights and social justice.

Apartheid social welfare was tied to the political and economic objectives of the time (Patel, 2005). The services were incapable of meeting the needs of the majority and were oriented towards social control and influencing people to adapt to an unjust social system (McKendrick, 1990).

Social work as a profession during apartheid had been “understood to be inherently linked with, and in its execution inherently dependent upon, a system of racial segregation and the institutionalisation of white supremacy” (Sewpaul and Holscher, 2004, p. 76).

Social work education

Social work education is rooted in the policies of the state and the dictates of Apartheid higher education. It is notable that a founding figure of social work education was the Afrikaner nationalist Professor Verwoerd (also considered the founder of Apartheid) of the University of Stellenbosch (Harms-Smith, 2014).

Social work education, according to Kotze (1998), was strongly based on British and American models, with a clinical approach focussing on case and group work (which inhered with the philosophy of personal responsibility) (Harms-Smith, 2014). The basis for social work training was predominantly that of the welfare system of the day and focussed on the preparation of practitioners for work in a therapeutic and restorative social welfare system (Lombard, 1998, p. 17).

An example of the contradictory narratives around the history of social work is that of the Hofmeyer College. Opened in 1941 by Ray Phillips (Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work, 1940) and closed in 1959 when state enacted legislation resulted in tertiary education institutions falling under its control. Well known graduates from the college include well known and respected national leaders and activists, Ellen Kuzwayo; Joshua Nkomo; Winnie Mandela; and Gibson Kente (Harms- Smith. 2014). The However, in spite of the college contributing to the shaping of national leaders and liberation struggle heroes, there is still evidence of hegemonic discourse and the misrecognition of relations of conflict and exploitation where the purpose of the college is described as being about eliminating ‘barbarism’:

“...It is becoming clearer and clearer to many Europeans that the welfare of their race in this country is bound up with that of the African race. They realise that as corn and tare [an undesirable weed] cannot grow side by side without the one overwhelming the other. So civilisation and barbarism cannot be allowed to grow side by side.” (Bantu World, 1940)

Alternative discourses

During the apartheid era, alternative discourses did emerge (albeit minimally and absent from formal social work texts) through the resistance by some social workers especially within the informal welfare sector. This was especially evident during the Truth and Reconciliation process when social workers and representatives from NGOs declared their culpability and experiences during the apartheid era (Androff, 2014). They had found themselves working within an oppressive and racist system, which dictated with whom (‘white’ only or ‘black’ only), where and how they should work. This included requirements to apply racist discriminations through policies and laws.

An example of participation in the struggle for social justice is that of the South African Black Social Workers Association (SABSWA), which played an important role in the resistance against Apartheid. For example, in 1977, the Black People's Convention (BPC) convened a consultative meeting with various organisations at Hammanskraal, to work out strategies on frustrating the pending "independence" of Bophuthatswana from the Republic of South Africa.

Where social workers did engage in subversive tactics, they worked at conscientisation, organised and mobilised against the order of the day, and participated in ‘grassroots’ community action towards liberation. The state used harsh repressive tactics such as victimisation, intimidation, and detention without trial (Baldwin-Ragaven, de Gruchy and London, 1999). Prior to the 1994 transition, social work resistance to the Apartheid regime also occurred in sporadic ways, often within political resistance movements. However, in a more formalised way, “progressive social workers of various persuasions” in the late 1980s, also began to question their own roles in human service delivery (Ntebe, 1994, p.41).

Social change and transition to democracy

The transition to democracy and the elections of 1994 were characterised by hope and commitment to social justice. Social work had tended to remain silent about social injustice and oppression. However, new forms of oppression arise. During the 1990s pressures by global economic institutions led the South African government to adopt the Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme (GEAR) in 1996 (Noyoo, 2003), exacerbating the high levels of race based poverty and inequality.

Questions must be asked about new forms of oppression and discrimination to which social workers should respond. After the transition to democracy, social workers were required to depart radically from the forms of intervention and service provision of the Apartheid era. The question is, ‘what culpability might social workers carry for the evasion of oppressions and dehumanisations in the current era’?


Androff, D.K. (2010). Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) An international Human Rights intervention and its connection to social work. British Journal of Social Work (2010) 40, 1960–1977 doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcp139 Baldwin-Ragaven, L., de Gruchy. L. and London, J. (1999). An ambulance of the wrong colour. Cape Town: Juta and CompanyLtd.
Bond, P. (2013) Debt, uneven development and capitalist crisis in South Africa: from Moody’s macroeconomic monitoring to Marikana microfinance mashonisas, Third World Quarterly, 34:4, 569-592, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2013.786283 Bowers-Du Toit, N. (2014). “Rise up and walk”: Tracing the trajectory of the Carnegie discourse and plotting a way forward. NGTT Stellenbosch Theological Journal DEEL 55(3 & 4), pp. 511- 531
Bundy (1979). The rise and the fall of the South African peasantry. Cape Town: David Philip
Coovadia, H. Jewkes, R., Barron, P., Sanders, D. and McIntyre, D. (2009). Health in South Africa 1: The health and health system of South Africa: historical roots of current public health challenges Lancet, 374: pp. 817–34 Hoosen Coovadia, Rachel Jewkes, Peter Barron, David Sanders, Diane McIntyreLancet 2009; 374: 817–34
Carnegie Corporation of New York. (2004). Carnegie results, Winter 2004. http://carnegie.org/fileadmin/Media/Publications/winter_04south africa.pdf Duncan, N. (2003). ‘Race’ talk: Discourses on ‘race’ and racial difference. International Journal of Intercultural Difference. 27(2), 135-156.
Ferguson, I. (2008). Reclaiming social work. London: Sage Publications Flynn, S (2019). Revisiting hegemony: A Gramscian analysis for contemporary social work. Irish Journal of Sociology. Article first published online: October 25, 2019 https://doi.org/10.1177/0791603519884201
Garrett PM (2018) Social Work and Social Theory: Making Connections. 2nd ed. Great Britain: Policy Press.
Harms Smith, L. (2014). Historiography of South African Social Work: Challenging dominant discourses. Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk. 50(3):305-331 http://hdl.handle.net/10059/2338
Legassik, M. (2008). Towards socialist democracy. Scottsville: University of Kwazulu-Natal Press
Lombard, A. (2008). Social work an economic partner in social development. Social work/Maatskaplike werk, 44(2), 121-142
Lowe, G.R. (1988). South African Social Work and the Norm of Injustice. The Social Service Review, 62 (1), pp: 20-39
MacPherson and Midgely, (1987). Comparative social policy and the third world. Brighton: Wheatsheef
Majeke, N. (1953). The role of missionaries in conquest. Johannesurg: Society of young Africa
Mandela, Nelson R. 1994. Presidential Inaugural Address, Pretoria, South Africa, 11 May.
Masson, F and Harms Smith, L. 2019. Colonisation as collective trauma: fundamental perspectives for social work. In: Tanja Kleibl, Ronald Lutz, Ndangwa Noyoo 2019. Handbook of Post-Colonial social work. Routledge (Chapter one)
McKendrick, B. (Ed). (1990). Introduction to social work in South Africa. Pretoria: HAUM Tertiary.
Modiri, J. (2012) The Colour of Law, Power and Knowledge: Introducing Critical Race Theory in (Post-) Apartheid South Africa, South African Journal on Human Rights, 28:3, 405-436, DOI: 10.1080/19962126.2012.11865054
Mubangizi, J.C. & Mubangizi, B.C. (2005) Poverty, human rights law and socio-economic realities in South Africa, Development Southern Africa, 22(2), 277-290, DOI: 10.1080/03768350500163311
Noyoo (2003) Human rights and social work in a transforming society: South Africa, International Social Work. 47(3): pp. 359-369 DOI: 10.1177/0020872804043961
Ntebe, A. (1994). Effective intervention roles of South African social workers in an appropriate, relevant and progressive social welfare model. Journal of Social Development in Africa, 9(1), pp: 41-50
Patel, L. (2005). Social Welfare and Social Development. Southern Africa: Oxford University Press.
Patel, L. (2013), Race, inequality and social welfare: South Africa’s imperial legacy. In: James Midgley and David Piachaud (2013). Colonialism and Welfare: Social Policy and the British Imperial Legacy, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar pp: 71-84
Seekings (2008) The continuing salience of race: Discrimination and diversity in South Africa, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 26(1), pp. 1-25, DOI: 10.1080/02589000701782612
Statistics South Arica (2019). Inequality trends in South Africa: A multidimensional diagnostic of inequality http://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=12744 Stevens, G. (2003) Stevens, G. (2003). Academic representations of ‘race’ and racism in psychology: Knowledge production, historical context and dialectics in transitional. South Africa International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, pp. 189–207
Terreblanche, S. (2012). Lost in transformation: South Africa’s search for a new future since 1986, Johannesburg: KMM Review Publishing Company Tsotsi, W.M. (2000). From chattel to wage slavery. Durban: W.M. Tsotsi University of Kwazulu-Natal. History. http://www.ukzn.ac.za/About- UKZN/UKZN-History.aspx
Worden, N. (2008) The making of modern South Africa. Oxford: Blackwell publishing
World population Review (2019). Gini coefficient by country 2019. http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/gini-coefficient-by- country/