In conversation with Vishanthie Sewpaul
[Transcript found in tab below]
Vishanthie Sewpaul speaks to us about the importance of the emancipatory power of education using powerful narratives from her own experience growing up in apartheid South Africa and as an educator of social work students. The messages are clear – macros factors, politics and the importance of self esteem and hope for the future are important to all people.
Vishanthie Sewpaul is a Senior Professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal and one of the Vice-Presidents of Schools of Social Work (IASSW-AIETS). She is also the President of the Association of Schools of Social Work in Africa (ASSWA) and immediate past President of the Association of South African Social Work Education Institutions.
Professor Sewpaul is actively involved in several national structures on the cutting edge of policy and standards development in social work in post-apartheid South Africa, and in developing social work in Africa. In 2007, she became the first President of the new non-racial, unified National Association of Social Workers, South Africa (NASW, SA).
Recommended citation – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Interviewer). (2012, September 19). Emancipatory education: In conversation with Vishanthie Sewpaul [Episode 24]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/emancipatory-education/.
Vishanthie's publications https://sahs.ukzn.ac.za/staff-profile/social-work/vishanthie-sewpaul/
Watch Vishanthie on Yourtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH-l0cxKm-E
Transcription Podsocs 24: Emancipatory education
Thank you to James Attard for this transcript
[musical intro to 00.10]
Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Tricia: I'm very pleased to have Vishanthie Sewpaul with us on Podsocs. She is the Senior Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and one of the Vice Presidents of the School of Social Work for the International Association of Social Workers. She is also President of the Association of Schools of Social Work in Africa. I had the great pleasure of meeting her earlier this year in Sweden. Thank you very much for coming on Podsocs.
Vishanthie: It’s a pleasure.
Tricia: Now Vishanthie you’re talking to us from South Africa.
Vishanthie: Yes from Durban on the east coast of South Africa.
Tricia: Vishanthie we’re going to be talking about emancipatory practice today. Which is a very interesting topic so I’m looking forward to talking to you about it. What is emancipatory practice?
Vishanthie: Well emancipatory practice I think in a nutshell means freeing ourselves from every taken for granted assumption and we can do that by a critical examination of the external sources of oppression on our lives. We can do that by a critical examination of the sources of privilege on our lives. Subjecting all the assumptions that we’ve grown up with right from the moments of our birth, assumptions and stereotypes that we grew up with about race, about class, about gender, about in some countries castes, sexual orientation, nationality, and so on. Taking all these things and subjecting them to critical interrogation.
Now Patricia I can start by giving you a very practical example you know that speaks to why and how I became interested. Now as you’ve said I live in South Africa, I mean we now live in a democratic South Africa where we very fast beginning to take for granted you know the privilege that we have but this was not always so. I grew up in apartheid South Africa, where every law around me told me I was inferior on the count of the colour of my skin. So it was in all pieces of legislation, when we walked on the streets there were signboards that said ‘whites only’ on benches, on chairs, and no matter how tired I was I couldn’t sit on it because it was reserved for whites only. There were buildings that actually said rights of admission reserved. Growing up under that system I never ever questioned the immorality of that, the unfairness of that, I took it as the natural state of the world. Whites were deemed to be superior and I was inferior, and it went on a pecking order actually you know whites, Indians, coloureds and African black. So I was still better off than a majority of the population but I think what happened was that on a political macro level these were the messages that were sent out but in the micro context of my family this message was reinforced. I grew up in single parent household where my mother was a domestic servant, so the only capacity in which I got to know whites was through a master and servant relationship.
I took my inferiority absolutely and totally for granted, that was the natural state of the world, but I was very fortunate that in high school I had a teacher who was very bent on politicising us. She was a product of the black consciousness movement and at that time the work of Paulo Freire his most seminal texts ‘The Pedagoy of the Oppressed’ was banned in South Africa because, you know, of its critical approach to education. But it was smuggled in to South Africa and used by the black consciousness movement and I was fortunate to have this teacher, her name was Sam Moodley, and she would get us into exercises in the Freirean tradition using practices, using reflections in action, using reflection on action. She would get us to do exercises and sometimes it would be queue control saying we walking up and down the street, what we’re observing and she’ll try to get us to identify our thoughts and our feelings about it.
Whenever she sought elements of self-blame she confronted us, and I think it was that confrontation that changed my life and the confrontation was as simple as this, it’s not your fault. She made us realise that it was the external system, the Government was evil, that we were worthy human beings and that as human beings we all deserved to be treated equally. And she didn’t stop there, again in typical Freirean tradition which talks not only about developing awareness, about the structural sources of our oppression. She got us engaged in further action.
So we started a theatre group, it was called Chats with us a theatre organisation of school children in which we started drama for political education. We used theatre for political education and one of the things I remember that we did was we translated the book Animal Farm, George Orwell’s book Animal Farm into a play and we produced it in order to do political education. I think we didn’t change apartheid in one go but what my teacher did with me I think is helped me believe in myself, it increased my self-esteem, and it made me gain a sense of hope for the future. Regaining a sense of hope for the future is an absolutely critical element in emancipatory education.
Now what my teacher did with us and the activities, the political activities, we engaged in at that time, you know, it had some small impact for example we were able to save a vital bus transportation system that the authorities were threatening to stop that would have severely disadvantaged the poor people that lived in that area. But it did give us a sense of hope for the future, it validated us, it made us feel important, and I think this is what emancipatory education is all about. Connecting with our own sense of esteem, connecting with our own courage, believing in ourselves, and using that by stretching inwards and reaching deep into our beings. We are able then to stretch outwards and see the world for what it is and get engaged in constructive ways and make a difference. So, I think that’s the relationship you know between the self on a micro level and on macro level changes. People who are feeling sort of down in the dumps and who believe that they are inferior cannot see themselves as worthy human beings who get constructively engaged in the world around them.
Tricia: So emancipatory education can be more important than improving your life circumstances. It can be intrinsically linked with your self-esteem.
Vishanthie: I think it’s intrinsically linked. I mean I’m not by any means negating the importance of structural changes, right and the importance of laws and policies, and things like that, are changing in the interests of equality and social justice. But we know that, you know, power is often used in the interests of power, you know, those who are in extremely powerful political positions are not willingly, are not wanting to willingly, give up their power. So marginalised groups of people - women, you know, people of colour, people of sexual minorities, people of national minorities, refugees, and so on often can’t rely on them simply being delivered to them, you know, the justice, the equality, the affirmation of human dignity being delivered to them by those in power. We often have to struggle for them, and fight for them. But we’re not going to fight for them without having courage ourselves by having hope, without making the realisation that these things are wrong in the first instance. And I think that’s the primary thing of emancipatory education, having had the benefit of that in high school I’ve sustained the interest, you know, by reading theorists like Gramsci, Paulo Freier, and others.
My own experiences reinforced through a whole range of readings on emancipatory work has greatly influenced my work with students. Now you’re talking about, you know, students and their beginning practices and what we can do. Now having taught students for many years and supervised through practice education I think what really disturbs me as an educator is what we see happen with our students. Is once students had normalised disadvantage and in the South African situation the majority of our students grew up in exceptionally disadvantaged backgrounds. In fact their backgrounds often mirror the backgrounds of the people whom they work with. In terms of poverty, in terms of inequality, in terms of growing up with single parents, and so on, HIV/AIDs, it’s amazing the number of my students who experienced death of close family members through AIDs. So they actually dealing with service users who are in similar positions as them. What I find is that when they, for example, do a home visit and they see somebody with no furniture, with no food, you know sitting about doing nothing, no job, they normalise it to such an extent that they don’t expect anything better for service users. I think that’s a danger in terms of our profession, if we don’t expect anything better because we've normalised it how are we going to work towards making a difference in the lives of people. And that’s what social work is about.
Tricia: So we have to have hope for our clients or service users, as well as for ourselves.
Vishanthie: Absolutely so. Absolutely so because I’ve grown up with, you know, with poverty, inequality, with recurring death in my home, and I’m seeing that it’s like what’s the big deal. You know that’s what life is affirmed with. But if we get them to critically examine the external sources of those disadvantages in their own lives, you know, how political systems, how economic systems, how issues of racism and sexism intersect to create disadvantages in the lives of families and individuals. You know we got to get them to see that this is not the natural state of your family, this is not the natural state that you ought to have grown up with, you know, there are systems that are there that could have actually prevented this. If there are systems that are there that could have prevented this for you then there are systems out there that can prevent this for the people that we work with as well. So, I actually use the biographies of my students very extensively. I get them to chart their timelines, you know, in terms of the chronogram and at each point in their lives the significant events, the sources of disadvantage, the sources of stress, who is there to help them out, what external factors, and so on. Then I get them to work on their genograms and their ecomaps. Then they take all of that together and actually write an exceptionally full narrative. The focus of that narrative is understanding how issues of race, of class, and gender influence life opportunities or the lack thereof. Yeah, identify those things in their own lives so that they begin to see it externally as well.
Tricia: And that can work for privilege as well as disadvantage.
Vishanthie: Oh absolutely. The questions particularly ask students to identify both. As much as many of my students, you know, come from those backgrounds what I also emphasise is our relative privilege compared with many of the people whom we work with. The fact that they are now sitting at university KwaZulu-Natal, which is an urban university well regarded, well respected on a global level. You know, they have the status, the authority, the power, you know, perceived to be people with greater knowledge in relation to the communities that they work with. By itself it means they are in a position of privilege. How we constantly need to be aware of our privilege positions when we are working with people. But we also need to look at privilege that we might have grown up with, because once we’ve grown up with privilege we take it for granted. It is my right that is like my birth right, I deserve it, and I worked hard for it, and you know I belong to this half of the world you know that’s privilege. If we actually stopped to think about it every privilege that we have comes from a certain source as well. I mean the most important thing is neoliberal capitalism that is a system that is really engineered to create inequality. So I sit here, you know, as a professor from university and I have the benefit of domestic help. You know that domestic help is a function of an unequal society and I think I’ve got to appreciate that. This privilege that I have of having domestic help is not my birth right, it is actually the function of an unequal society.
Tricia: At what point did you envisage the possibility of going to university? When did that become real?
Vishanthie: Patricia, that’s a you know a whole thesis again in my life. When I was in high school, and again you know the power of our teachers, the power of simple conversation. This one teacher, she was my English teacher, one day in class said if you have any friends or family members who have problems let me know because I have a sister who is a social worker and she can help. She particularly mentioned issues of substance abuse, you know, because the area we lived in had lots of teenagers especially with problems of substance abuse. She went on to tell us in class that her sister went to university to study to become a social worker. For me it was like WOW, you know, that instantaneous realization you can actually go to university to learn how to help somebody. I knew I wanted to help people, that’s all I knew at that time, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. From the moment this teacher mentioned that that’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to go to university. I wanted to be a social worker.
I told you that I grew up in a family where my mother was a domestic servant, she had seven children by the way, and I was the youngest of seven children. I was 5 months of age when my father died. So when I finished high school there was no money to go towards university and I was looking for a job and I remember so distinctly standing outside a bank and an acquaintance of mine, a friend of a friend from school, happened to becoming by and he asked me what I was doing there and I said looking for a job. He had the good sense to ask me one important question, he asked is this really what you want to do and I explained no I really want to go to university but this is a problem I can’t go, and his next question was did you try to get any help and no I didn’t even know there was any help to be gotten. Anyway, I tell you the story because every so often we think we got to give people material goods to alter their lives.
Vishanthie: But it’s not so. He asked me one critical important question, and that again did you get any help, made me realise that maybe the dream does not have to end I can still do it. We actually went to what at that time was called the Department of Indian Affairs and I gave them my sad story about how much I wanted to be a social worker and would they employ me, and that I would study part time. I was told no that the law was such that you needed a degree to work as a social worker so I couldn’t do it. The gentleman there was very again affirming of me, he didn’t just shoo aside my desire to be a social worker and he said you know what you can go to Child Welfare Society, the Durban Indian Child Welfare Society. So I go there and I relay my story to a woman there who is a social worker and she tells me the same thing, the law applies equally to them even though theirs was not a public sector department it was a voluntary welfare organisation but the law was the same in that I needed a degree so they couldn’t employ me. But what she said was very interesting, she said given that you’re so determined to become a social worker why don’t you go see and apply for a student loan and go register at university, your family will be so proud of you that somehow they will support you. And that’s how I got to be a social worker.
Tricia: Wow. Vishanthie I often wonder what’s the best way to support students from backgrounds where there are struggles, to support them to stay for the duration of their degree and to get through it. Because sometimes what happens in life can pull you back the other way.
Vishanthie: Yes, and in fact I think we recently had someone do a study on first year social work students and I think, as I said I use the biographies of my students from their first year as it’s validating their life experiences. But Patricia I also share my own in where I come from, I’m never ashamed of it, I tell them this is where I come from, and for the students it’s like again what they describe as an eye opener. They believe, you know when I went into the room on the first day and I’m a professor and you know I have a smart office, they believe that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I share my story with them in the hope that they would be honest about connecting with their own life circumstances and their biographies. They tell me what a world of difference it makes to them.
You know if I can do it they believe they can do it as well. So it’s validating, it’s listening to, it’s validating their life experiences, and it’s also helping them to engage in reflective dialogue and reflective thinking. As my teacher did with me it’s challenging their thinking every step of the way. So, you know, the exercises that I get them to engage in are often like designed to understand, not just their ability to reproduce material from texts, but designed to understand how they are thinking and to help correct errors in thinking. So, I constantly emphasise the importance of, for example gender, there is so much gender stereotypes apart from race stereotypes, you know, in South Africa and, you know. Sharing a simple story with this guy phones into a radio station and he shares his view about the debate on that day was about the next president of South Africa could be a woman and he says absolutely not, you know, from my point of view a woman is born to be of service to men and they should be doing the housework that’s what my culture says, so women could never assume that kind of leadership position.
I had this conversation with this class, you know, where do you think this man has his views, gain his views from, and we talk about how stereotypes like this and our taken for granted assumptions come from the media, come from politics, come from our family, it’s perhaps what he has observed in his home in regard to the roles of his mum and dad, he might have had been reinforced in Sunday school as a child in church he grew up, you know, and so on. Then we question if he had the benefit of reflective dialogue and reflective thinking might he have stopped to think are these my ideas about women, is this what I really think what I believe or has it been drummed in my head, in my brain, so much so I now think it’s my idea. It’s hard to understand what’s the relationship between human agency and structure. To what extent structures external to us influence our thinking but to what extent does that thinking that’s inscribed to our being influence the structures and the modes of operation on the outside as well. That’s an extremely complex relationship but I do believe that if we have the benefit of the reflective dialogue, of reflective thinking, and we stop to ask how I know what I know, how do I think, or how have I come to think the way I think. It would help us not to reinforce stereotypes and prejudices.
Tricia: How important is having a political sense to the practice of social work do you think?
Vishanthie: Oh everything is politics Patricia, everything is politics. The fact that we have hierarchies within our homes, you know, our parental structures and children subsystems that’s lower than that. It reflects a political world and I think we must not underestimate the power of politics on our lives. You know, external systems at macro level, political issues, have a way of seeping into the lives of families, of individuals, to manifest in a range of problems that you and I have to deal with as social workers. What we call individual problems micro level, family related problems in relation to family disintegration, and poverty, and substance abuse, and so on are not individual problems. They are reflections of I think a world gone wrong not only on a national levels but on global levels as well.
Tricia: I think when social workers are working with individual people on a day to day basis they might sometimes find it difficult to make that connection to the macro level.
Vishanthie: Yeah. Yeah they do, but I think while we need to work at different levels of people why I understand that this unemployment, and this substance abuse, and this domestic violence in this family needs to be handled. Right? Whether through individual intervention or formation of group support mechanisms, you know, getting and helping with the legal system, and so on. Right?
Vishanthie: But I think what would help me in about understanding the macro level impacts on this family is the non-judgementalism. If I believe that this family’s problems are of their own making then I judge them for it, I blame them for it, and when I’m judgemental and I blame them families and individuals pick that up. But if I’m helping them and I understand that a lot of these problems are perhaps beyond the scope of this family. You know, it’s got external triggers to them then I think my attitude towards them will be very emancipatory. It would help them with their own liberation and I think the validation, you know, the gift of validation. You know, we don’t as I’ve said before have goodies, and money, and houses, and food to deliver to people but if we can validate people despite these circumstances I think it is one of the most empowering strategies that social workers have to offer. Those people helped me in my journey become a social worker did not give me a cent but they believed in me, they offered me alternate perspectives, and they connected me, and I think we can do that too to the people we work with.
Tricia: How do we influence Governments in that direction?
Vishanthie: It’s extremely difficult. I’ve been battling governments all my life, well my adult life, when I became aware of things. You know, governments try to act as entities unto their own, well not all perhaps it depends on the type of government and what we have. Unfortunately, I think as many post-colonial states, in our case post-apartheid state, the new nationals who have taken over government seem to moving rapidly into the former sort of positions of our oppressors in South Africa. So we fought an apartheid regime that was extremely oppressive and we are now fighting, you know, a democratic government that has chosen a neoliberalism that negates some of its own first principals and that it pledged to in taking power in 1994. We have one of the most wonderful, beautiful constitutions in the world but South Africa is fast being impacted by corruption, by neoliberal capitalism, our inequality is getting deeper, and if you followed the Marikana massacre with 34 miners that were recently killed that is so reminiscent, you know, of for example the […] massacres that we’ve had in South Africa. I never thought we would decompensate to this. We must not be afraid, we must serve as voice, and we must speak up, all the time.
Tricia: Vishanthie so what are the most important messages you think to leave us with?
Vishanthie: The most important messages to leave us with is we need to be able to believe in ourselves and we need to connect with the courage and strength that each one of us has. In doing so by reaching deep into our beings we can reach outwards and strive to be constructively engaged with the world around us. human rights issues, issues of social justice are not finite issues that we can say we have arrived, we have reached it and that we can lay in rest on our laurels and be content. It means a constant engagement, constructive engagement, with those issues and our willingness to be engaged.
Tricia: And we can be powerful as individuals and as social workers.
Vishanthie: Oh absolutely. That’s I think that’s the message that I tried to give throughout this interview. That we have enormous power I think as individuals to make a difference but if we use that power as individuals to network across borders, nationally, across continents, globally, then I think we can make a world of difference. I always say alone we can make a difference but connected we can make a world of difference.
Tricia: Vishanthie thank you that has been wonderful and inspiring and we really appreciate your time.
Vishanthie: Thank you Patricia, all the best.
Tricia: Thank you.
[Musical outro 32.35 to END]
Interview ENDS: 33.02