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Students, faculty find South Africa trip an unforgettable experience

Almost two decades after the fall of apartheid, South Africa remains a country of contradictions. Here, visitors can find unbelievable beauty, including majestic mountains, contrasted against pockets of overwhelming poverty, unemployment, and crime. Such complexity also presents an unforgettable educational experience, which university students and faculty and social work practitioners discovered during a study abroad trip to the country in late spring.

UNC’s School of Social Work sponsored the program from May 24 through June 9. Nearly two-dozen students and faculty from UNC, the University of Buffalo, Arizona State University, the University of Cincinnati, California State University at Sacramento, and UNC-Wilmington participated. The School of Social Work has hosted seven previous trips to South Africa.

This year’s program offered participants the chance to examine social issues, development strategies, and health programs through the lens of a country that continues to grapple with the effects of nearly 50 years of apartheid rule. Social work students and faculty at host University of Johannesburg helped lead discussions on the similarities and differences between social work in South Africa and social welfare in the United States. Participants also visited with nongovernment organizations (NGOs), including those serving domestic violence survivors and individuals with HIV/AIDS, to learn more about the work they’re doing to improve the lives of millions of residents.

“I think the students really got a sense of what social work is like on the ground there. It’s one thing to hear it in an academic setting. It’s another to go into the agencies and see the people they’re serving,” said UNC’s Dan Hudgins, a clinical assistant professor. Hudgins, along with Gina Chowa, an assistant professor, and Sharon Holmes Thomas, director of recruitment, admissions and financial aid, co-lead the study abroad trip.

Many of South Africa’s NGOs grew out of the difficult social, economic, and health conditions that resulted from decades of oppressive racial policies. Many families are still dealing with the widespread effect of that oppression. According to a 2011 report from the South African Human Rights Commission and UNICEF South Africa, an estimated 4.5 million South Africans, or one of every four adult residents, are unemployed. Further, nearly 12 million children, or about 64 percent, still live in poverty. These challenges persist despite the country’s adoption of one of the world’s most progressive constitutions—one that promotes that all residents have a right to basic amenities, including adequate housing, sufficient food and water, and health care services.

Even so, NGOs continue to fill the gaps where democratic policies have not been completely realized. Seeing nonprofit workers so committed to bettering their communities was inspiring, said Charity Sneed, an MSW/PhD-continuum student at Carolina.

“The visits with the NGOs taught me about the critical need to convert passion into action,” Sneed said. “The passion and dedication that members of the NGOs had for their work were apparent in the time, energy, and resources they put forth to incite social change in their communities, despite the lack of financial support and growing social need.”

The importance of social work was also fully demonstrated during visits into townships, including Soweto and Khayelitsha. In Soweto, study abroad participants watched as social workers went door-to-door to check on children living with HIV and to make sure that they were properly receiving antiretroviral drugs. According to UNICEF South Africa, about 100,000 children are living with HIV and receiving treatment. Many were placed in foster care after losing one or both parents to HIV/AIDs.

Soweto also left a lasting impression, especially around issues of race and poverty, said Travis Albritton, a clinical instructor, and the School’s director of the Triangle Distance Education Program.

“The visit to Soweto was so powerful, and it really led to a constructive conversation about difference … and how we need to pay attention to what assumptions we make about people, what assumptions we make about people’s living conditions, and what assumptions we make about who we are,” he said.

Over the course of two weeks, participants were immersed into the country’s rich and vital history through tours to popular landmarks, including Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and the Constitutional Court. The court was built on the site of a century-old prison complex that once housed political prisoner Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

Such an exploration reminded program participants of how much the legacy of South Africa’s apartheid remains a complex link between its painful past and hopeful future, Holmes Thomas noted. Although the country’s fledgling democracy has created some change, there is still much work to be done, she said. For example, more than 10 million South Africans still lack access to basic sanitation. In Khayelitsha, a township just outside of Cape Town, many families still live in wooden shacks with metal roofs. Households often lack access to or must share toilets. In many instances, restrooms have been built out in the open, without an enclosure. Because of insecure facilities, women are often at risk of being sexually assaulted.

Students and faculty were impressed with the efforts of those fighting on the front lines to improve such living conditions, Holmes Thomas said.

“They are the young, emerging social work leaders,” she said. “They are the children coming out of the post-apartheid era who really see a need for advocacy and who have a passion for helping their communities. They are just on fire, and they’re holding the courts accountable. So to see that engagement was really, really powerful.”

Participants were equally inspired to learn that social work—as a profession in South Africa—is “pretty well-grounded,” Hudgins added.

“The passion that they have is just unbelievable,” he said. “There really is this sense there that ‘We’re making a difference. We’re doing important work.’ ”

Photos courtesy Charity Sneed