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Cooperation in social work

Goosebumps in South Africa

The Dortmund delegation in Johannesburg with Prof. Dr. Michael Boecker (left), Sandra Bolesch (2nd from right) and social worker Dorothée Boecker (right).

When five social work doctoral students from South Africa and Zimbabwe visit Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts for a month in November, the next level of cooperation will begin, which could serve as a prime example of the idea of learning from one another.

This DAAD-funded(Opens in a new tab)  cooperation is about social work. About globalization. About the SDGs, the UN's Sustainable Development Goals to promote the sustainable development of humanity, and about the question of what these SDGs mean for social work.

It's about people in Johannesburg and Durban (South Africa), people in Harare (Zimbabwe) and people in Dortmund. What they can learn from each other. What prejudices they harbor and which of them can be changed and how.

It's about how these people can advance social work together. And how a temporarily funded cooperation project can become something permanent that the next generations of researchers and social workers can continue.

It is also about impressions from Africa like this one, observed by PhD student Sandra Bolesch: "There were two entrances in front of the Apartheid Museum. Above one was a sign saying 'whites', above the other one 'non-whites'. The entrance ticket said you could decide for yourself where you wanted to go in. That was very depressing."

And it's about washing machines and child pregnancies, floods and tornadoes, PowerPoint presentations and acting.

The network is growing faster and faster

"The idea for the one-month guest stays was born in 2021," recalls Prof. Dr. Michael Boecker. "Back then, we gave four doctoral students from the University of Johannesburg and the University of Durban the opportunity to come to Fachhochschule Dortmund for a month. And that had a very lasting effect. There have been lively contacts ever since. There were lectures by the guests at our university, and we realized that this would bring much, much more to the university."

With the visit of the students from South Africa and Zimbabwe in November, these stays are now set to become permanent: "In April 2024, two of us and two from each of the other universities will go to Durban for a month," announces Michael Boecker. "We are trying to initiate a network that survives the project itself and then continues to work autonomously on the topics."

"The cooperation partners (from left): Prof. Devika Naidoo, Dr. Mildred Nushunje, Prof. Dr. Tanusha Raniga, Michael and Dorothée Boecker and Dr. Maud Mthembu.

In addition, Michael Boecker and the cooperation partners want to organize a congress every year. Not digitally, but actually traveling there, shaking hands, looking into eyes, breathing air, getting to know the world. The first one has just taken place in Johannesburg in July. Around 40 young researchers and professors, including eight students from Fachhochschule Dortmund as well as Michael Boecker and social worker Dorothée Boecker, his colleague and wife.

A utopia as a goal

"From a sober point of view, the congress is only the most visible part of a network between the participating universities that works all year round," says Dorothée Boecker. But social workers don't just think soberly and this congress was much more than a factual exchange of information.

It was a revelation in more ways than one. "We really had moments where I thought 'wow, goosebumps'," says Michael Boecker.

Building of the University of Johannesburg.

We had the feeling that we were part of something really, really big here.

Dorothée Boecker, qualified social worker

The main topic of the congress was the question: What do the SDGs mean for social work? "The Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations are thus more than just a compass in confused times or a playground for transformation research," emphasized Michael Boecker in his welcoming speech at the congress. "The extent to which they are implemented will have a decisive impact on the lives of further generations and affect humanity as a whole." The word "decisive" is underlined in his speech manuscript.

A South African doctoral student talks about the SDGs.

The UN published the SDGs in 2015. The first three are "No poverty", "No hunger" and "Good health and well-being", and this is meant globally: not a single person should have to suffer from poverty, hunger and the unhealthy effects of civilization. According to the UN, the SDGs are "a global plan to promote sustainable peace and prosperity and to protect our planet". You could also say: the biggest and most noble goal that humanity has ever set itself.

According to the UN, all countries have been working on implementing the plan since 2016. The target date: 2030.
To mark the SDGs, the International Social Work Association has set out four pillars to guide all efforts. One of these pillars is social cohesion and the power of relationships.

"It is so important," emphasizes Michael Boecker, "that everyone starts thinking about these issues. As long as we reduce CO2, but subsidize coal-fired power plants in South Africa in order to get cheap coal-fired power again, something is going wrong. If rainforests that we urgently need are being cut down in Latin America to grow soy because there is an insane demand for it in Asia, then this runs counter to climate protection, which should actually have the highest priority. Then you have to look at the big picture and break it down again to the question: what does this mean for us personally? That's where it gets very close to the people."

Tackling these harmful entanglements of globalization requires perseverance and foresight. Hence the maintenance and expansion of the network, hence the long-term view. "That's typical of social work anyway," says Dorothée Boecker. "A lot of things only bear fruit after years or decades."

The thing with skin colors

"It was very moving to see that we approached each other openly despite the history of our nations, which is characterized by European colonial rulers in South Africa and apartheid," says Sandra Bolesch about the congress. Unlike Dorothée and Michael Boecker, who set up an orphanage, a health center and a youth education center in South Africa 20 years ago, this was her first time in the country.

Sandra Bolesch has a bachelor's degree in linguistics, a master's degree in business administration and is now working on her doctorate in applied social sciences on the topic of perceptions of refugees in Germany based on their skin color, among other things. "It was important for me to talk to BIPoC at the congress and to hear their opinions on the topic of my doctoral thesis." ("BIPoC" stands for "Black, Indigenous and People of Color").

"A professor from Durban showed interest in my topic - if I'm very lucky, she might take on the initial supervision of my doctoral thesis. That is still being clarified." Following the congress, Sandra Bolesch undertook a trip through South Africa and gathered many more impressions.

In the Apartheid Museum: The quote from a sociology professor from 1945, in which he deeply rejects the "mixing of the blood" of white and black people and brands it a danger to society.

For example this one: "In the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, you could read the slogan: 'The white man will always be the master of Africa'. And in a display case was a dictionary for housemaids of the colonial masters of the time, who were mostly dark-skinned South Africans. One of the first and therefore probably most important words was: 'Bring the master coffee. Words fail you. When I then realized that the room was filled with a school class, all BIPoC, I suddenly felt quite out of place and wondered what they thought of me."

"Close to the people" could have been the subtitle of the congress. "And suddenly you're standing there at the university in Johannesburg with white skin," says Dorothée Boecker, describing her thoughts at the start of the congress, "and you know that the other person might be afraid just because of the color of my skin. We first had to get rid of these thoughts. But we also established a very trusting relationship with the people from Zimbabwe, who had only just joined the cooperation, on the very first day. They told us: They didn't know beforehand to what extent skin color could be a problem."

The participants of the congress also approached this question scientifically. The open, critical reflection on North-South relations with a view to post-colonialism that they experienced there was something special, says Michael Boecker. "There are suddenly such huge topics in the discussion that go beyond social work, and there are young people talking about them. White people are openly thinking about the question of their collective guilt. Those are moments when I think something has happened."

"I realized once again how privileged you are as a white person. For example, how natural it is to own a washing machine in Dortmund, which is an absolute luxury in Zimbabwe. My flight to Johannesburg is paid for, but I could afford it myself. A professor from Zimbabwe couldn't do that. The professors there earn around 300 euros a month."

With some students, I noticed how a switch really flipped, who were perhaps initially just curious and academically interested and then suddenly got involved with passion and out of personal impulse.

Prof. Dr. Michael Boecker

Harder life

The reports from the hosts revealed the much more difficult conditions that social work faces there. Dorothée Boecker, for example, remembered a "very interesting discussion about women's rights".

Her colleagues from South Africa reported an increase in domestic violence, especially by men against women and children. In addition, there is poverty, difficult access to education and the traditional belief that a man is fundamentally superior to a woman.

There used to be no 'no' in the vocabulary of a Zulu woman. This has improved since then, but the problem of domestic violence has come to a head again during the coronavirus crisis.

Qualified social worker Dorothée Boecker

Children also do not have a sufficient lobby: during the corona-related school closures, many of them had to stay at home for months.
"Digital lessons and participation in education were not possible for children and young people in South Africa," explains Dorothée Boecker.

"In the collection of stories from affected pupils, attending school after the South African lockdown was a sign of hope, courage and a path to the future. The educational path, the opportunity to attend school, has an inestimable value for young people in South Africa."

"In her thesis, a doctoral student from Zimbabwe wrote about the fact that hygiene products for girls are not freely available or are too expensive in her country. However, stained clothing is considered a stigma and offers a target. As a result, girls are unable to go to school for several days once a month."

A contribution from the queer community impressively demonstrated that the hostility towards transgender women is particularly bad. Dorothée Boecker: "The extent to which these people benefit from the improvements already introduced for women sparked an extremely exciting discussion."

South African determination

She has all the more respect for the South African women. Because they don't give up. "Because they find a solution to problems together and implement it." Like Dr. Maud Mthembu from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, who took action in the face of the many child pregnancies.

Dorothée Boecker, who has worked with those affected on several occasions, knows that children and young people also become pregnant in Germany. "But in Africa it's on a different scale. The number of pregnancies from the age of eleven is very high and many 13 and 14-year-old girls already have one or more children in their young lives."

Maud Mthembu developed a book. In it, a woman explains in a very child-friendly way how to have a relationship, what you can and can't do at what age and what you need to know. Carefully and without pointing fingers.

Together with Michael Boecker, Maud Mthembu had already written an educational book during the coronavirus pandemic. It was in the isiZulu language, "to educate children in areas that social work would otherwise not reach and where no one would understand their usual English-language materials," says Michael Boecker. "These are the little things that really help on the ground."
The social workers from Germany, South Africa and Zimbabwe are united by their practical thinking and hands-on approach.

That just fits. We're not just academics, we came here because we wanted to make a difference in people's lives.

Michael Boecker about his cooperation colleagues


However, the events there have a different presence. For example, the topic of natural disasters from the group in Durban was very impressive.

In 2021, a huge flood destroyed the area.
A second one followed in 2022.
In March 2023, a tornado devastated the city.

"The participants from Durban were right in the middle of the action, in concrete social work," emphasizes Dorothée Boecker. "They are currently experiencing first-hand what it's like to be helpless and in need of help themselves. And how super important a good network is."

Michael Boecker: "The students have experienced first-hand that these frequent disasters are a huge task for social work. Our colleagues from Durban showed us videos on YouTube, where we saw how people are coping, because despite everything, things have to go on somehow. Videos that show how social work supports communities."

And as is so often the case, it is the poorest of the poor who suffer the most. The task of bringing about social justice seems no less daunting.

"Because South Africa cannot produce and buy enough energy, the electricity is cut off for several hours every day throughout the country. Those who are rich buy a generator. Those who are poor simply have to make do without electricity. What's more, the electricity is cut off for much longer in poor areas."

A hostel informs its guests that the electricity will be switched off from 8 pm to 10 pm.

Perhaps it is no wonder that South African social workers are more militant, given the more difficult living conditions. More political. On International Workers' Day, universities in Germany make "rather restrained academic offers", while social workers in South Africa take to the streets, demonstrate and try to exert a much more activist influence throughout the rest of the year.

And they do so with their own voice, independently of the independent welfare sector and political institutions, often together with their target groups. "We don't have this level of audibility," says Michael Boecker. "Our students were also quite impressed and motivated by this."

Presentations brought to life

The way in which the hosts organized their lectures and presentations will also remain a lasting memory for the Dortmund students.
Prof. Boecker explains: "The students worked on various topics in mixed working groups. At the end, there was supposed to be a presentation of a maximum of 15 minutes, but we didn't set any other formal requirements.

We thought there would be five PowerPoint presentations. But there were completely different things, there were role plays, where you could see that the students and doctoral candidates from South Africa and Zimbabwe do things differently to us, they really get into it, and it was great.

One group had thought about it: What traumas does our society have and how do we deal with them today? They portrayed the foreign ministers of the individual countries and a young black man stood there and said: 'Yes, apartheid was there, there was also reappraisal and reparations. But we are still hurt today and we are still angry today.

And the Germans then took this up and said that we Germans were in Namibia in 1913/1914 and murdered the Herero. That was a genocide. And to this day, the Federal Republic of Germany's handling of the issue is not satisfactory."

"My group was about vulnerable groups. We thought about presenting it as a play or a song, for example. But we had someone with us who writes poetry in his spare time. He then wrote down our result as a multi-verse poem, which was really impressive.

All in all, there were perhaps one or two PowerPoint presentations on the day, but the most common choice was a creative presentation of the results.

Perhaps this is a cultural difference. Perhaps Germans are more likely to be won over by facts, while other cultures may respond much more to emotional aspects. We all had goosebumps afterwards and realized that it simply works fantastically."

On one of the evenings, all participants were asked to put on traditional clothing. The Dortmunders did not have such clothing in the true sense of the word - but a jersey is at least an approximation.

Next-level workshops

Even before the guests from Africa come to Fachhochschule Dortmund in November 2023, another new facet of the cooperation is to be launched. "We will offer workshops in which we turn the tables," says Michael Boecker and explains: "By 'turn the tables', I mean that the approach here in the Global North is often that we want to show those down there how it's done.

This implies a knowledge gap that doesn't match my experience in my discipline at all. My colleagues in South Africa are clearly further ahead in the professional discourse. They are further ahead in political social work. So much further, in fact, that our students sit there with their mouths wide open and say: Wow."

The first two cooperatively organized workshops that are planned are along the same lines.
One topic is participatory action research. A method in which target groups are very closely involved.

Michael Boecker: "This has always been ridiculed here, even in other disciplines. Because it supposedly didn't correspond to the necessary scientific distance. If you want to involve a person with disabilities, then you do an interview. But so far, it has not been conceivable for us to really involve such people in research, for example to let them help develop the research design. That's something we're just starting to do, but in the Global South it's always been one of the big methods.

We simply have some catching up to do, and our colleagues here at the faculty have already signaled great interest."

The other topic is community development. Developing projects in social spaces with others. "We always tend to focus on the individual," says Michael Boecker, "with a neo-liberal focus on case management and individual assistance. But in many countries in the Global South, they say: 'How is that supposed to work? Keyword extended family, people are always embedded in environmental relationships, so you have to take a broader view."

Michael Boecker says that they now want to do things differently on these two points.

We are the learners and we are taking formats from the Global South to improve ourselves.

Prof. Dr. Michael Boecker on the planned workshops

Notes and references

Photo credits

  • University of Johannesburg
  • Sandra Bolesch

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