INCREASINGLY, a number of Zimbabweans in the UK have taken up social work as a career of choice ahead of other professions such as Law, Nursing, Medicine, Architecture, Accountancy and Engineering traditionally regarded as more superior in Zimbabwe.
Many more look forward to social work as a profession that can offer them real life opportunities in the UK. Yet social work as a profession was relatively unknown within the Zimbabwean community in the UK until recently. Many did not know of the existence of the profession in Zimbabwe until they arrived in the UK.
In Zimbabwe, social work is an unrecognisable profession. Social workers, otherwise known as social welfare officers in Zimbabwe, are obscure and little known in professional circles. Social are comparatively poorly paid, making the profession less attractive to many.
The other reason why social work is relatively unknown and less popular in Zimbabwe is a lack of clarity in terms of what social workers do. Many of them are employed by the state and local authorities in very peripheral roles, some of which do not require any professional qualifications.
Social work in Zimbabwe is generic in practice and deeply embedded in the prism of poverty and social functioning. It is developmental and less proactive in practice, consistent with the conditions that exist in that country.
There is less emphasis on one-to-one casework or competence-based social work practice, contrary to situation in the UK. However, the demarcation between what social workers and para-professionals in Zimbabwe do remains a grey area and is contested.
It is not surprising that many untrained individuals involved in welfare issues, especially in mining communities, masquerade as social workers.
What appears to be behind this cloud of ignorance of the social work profession in Zimbabwe is its apparent lack of support and full recognition. This is despite the fact that high profile figures such as the late former Vice President Joshua Nkomo, Dr Witness Mangwende, former Minister Dr Sikanyiso Ndlovu, Professors Edwin Kaseke (Wits University), Roderick Mpedziswa (University of Botswana) and Stella Makhanya studied social work and became prominent figures in the profession.
It is encouraging that in recent times the perception of social work in Zimbabwe is fast changing. This is evidenced by the increased interest in the profession in the UK and in Zimbabwe, high levels of employability and the creation a couple of years ago, of the Council for Social Workers in Zimbabwe, a regulatory body that registers and oversees the training and practice of social workers in the country.
Social workers in Zimbabwe are increasingly being employed by NGOs such as World Vision, Plan International, Care, Save the Children and Help Age among others. Competition for social work places at the University of Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe’s sole social work training institution) has become more intense with those aspiring to join the profession expected to have no less than 10 A Levels points to enter the University.
My research on social workers in the UK has revealed that there are no less than 280 overseas-recruited Zimbabwean social workers (GSCC country statistics 2010) and an increasing number of UK-trained Zimbabwe-born social workers. The number of Zimbabwean social workers trained in the UK is believed to be over a hundred and is set to surpass those recruited from Zimbabwe in a few years.
It is encouraging to note that Zimbabwean social workers are making significant inroads into the profession with a significant number of them now in management and senior practitioner roles throughout the UK. The success of Zimbabwean social workers in the UK should encourage those who wish to join the profession and perhaps take their skills and experience back home at the end of their tour of duty in UK.
It is saddening that the Home Office wishes to restrict the mobility of social workers to the UK through its quota system on immigrants from outside the EU. The imposition of limits on the number of social workers each Local Authority is allowed to employ will certainly impact negatively on the Zimbabwe-based social workers contemplating a move to the UK.
It is my hope that one day most of the social workers now based in the UK will return to Zimbabwe and resuscitate the crumbling social care system in a country which has been severely affected by brain drain.
Ultimately, it is concerning that there is a more than 50 percent vacancy rate in the Department of Social Welfare -- the largest employer of social workers in Zimbabwe – owing to the exodus of social workers to the UK. More disturbingly, the employment of sociology graduates in social work posts around the country makes a joke of the government’s commitment to social work in the country.
If social workers were remunerated properly a few of them would stick around and help maintain a good level of social service delivery instead of abusing them as mere distributors of public assistance when issues of domestic violence and cases of child sexual abuse are neglected.
The Minister responsible for social work rarely speaks a word in support of social workers in the country. It is my hope that the increase in social work interests in the UK will help to put pressure on the government in Zimbabwe to improve conditions for social workers and also allow for more Universities to train social workers in readiness for the many challenges ahead.