Exploring experiences of displacement and cross-border migration in South Africa : implications for Social Work's commitment to Social Justice.
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The phenomena of displacement and cross-border migration highlight pertinent injustices under conditions of globalisation and neoliberalism. Social work is entangled in these injustices. Against such background, this study was intended to explore the implications of displacement and cross-border migration in South Africa for social work’s commitment to social justice. I conducted a multisite ethnographic study while practicing as a social worker in a refugee services organisation and participating in the responses of a local church to the mass displacement of foreign nationals during South Africa’s first xenophobic pogroms. Data collection lasted from May 2008 to October 2009 and included a reflexive diary, life story interviews with cross-border migrants, and depth individual interviews with practitioners of care. The data was analysed using a combination of grounded theory and critical discourse analysis and was further explored with reference to a range of writings on social justice. While foregrounding feminist relational/ethics of care approaches, I also drew on the ideas of capabilities and agency, and considered anti-oppressive and structural traditions in social work. Five empirical papers emanated from this study and were published as scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals. Cross-border migrants participating in the study shared pervasive experiences of exclusion, exploitation, deprivation, powerlessness, violence, and Othering. Members of the church community and practitioners of care in both sites were witness to some of the injustices experienced by the migrants. In those situations that facilitated face-to-face encounters, the response was one of solidarity and care. However, I found a general disregard for the structural nature of the injustices experienced by the migrants. Practitioners and community members also disregarded their own implication in these injustices. In the absence of any sustained and political response, there was a tendency to reify the economic, political, social, and cultural conditions surrounding these encounters. When expectations towards successful interventions were not met, cross-border migrants tended to be blamed for their situation, apt to be framed as undeserving of help. Finally, members of all participant groups – cross-border migrants, practitioners of care and members of the church community – shared a range of negative emotions pertaining to their surrounding social injustices. Together, there was a tendency to re-enact historical scripts for relationships between members of different races, classes, and nationalities in post-apartheid South Africa. These scripts were structured further by a well-established welfare discourse around service provider/service user relationships. The thesis concludes with a number of recommendations. These concern, firstly, territorial borders and nation state membership as a specific source of injustice, and the need for targeted, yet multifaceted interventions in the field of social work with cross-border migrants. It is also recommended that efforts to mainstream feminist relational/ethics of care approaches continue, and that their compatibility with other ethical approaches be further explored. With regard to the formulation of aspirational statements such as the global definition of social work and its statement of ethical principles, I recommend greater recognition of the relational and process aspects of social justice, and that the language of the documents reflects notions of care and of social justice as a shared and forward-looking responsibility. Historical consciousness, contextual understanding, criticality and emotional reflexivity are highlighted as important ingredients in socially just interventions, as well as in teaching and learning and research practices. In this context, attention to emotion and affect should not be seen simply as an end in itself, but also be regarded as an important means to revitalise social work as a political practice. I suggest that the ideals of care, participatory parity and dialogical forms of engagement can usefully guide such endeavours. Finally, I recommend the formation of communities of practice to provide safe spaces for mutual support, debate, and to explore ways of responding to pertinent social injustices under difficult circumstances.