«We Strive to Leave No One Behind»

Professor Alida Herbst is a social worker and currently Director of the School of Psychosocial Behavioural Sciences at North-West University (NWU) in South Africa. She established co-operations with various international universities and was awarded for her stunning guest lectures. On March 13, 2017, she visited us at ZHAW School of Applied Sciences in Zurich and held one of her impressive lectures for our students, researchers and staff members.

By Joy Bolli, Editor ZHAW School of Applied Psychology

Most Swiss people have experienced the great taste of South African wines. Many have already been to South Africa. They have travelled the Garden Route, been to the Cape of Good Hope or to the Kruger National Park. But only few people have had a deeper glimpse into the social structures of the young «Rainbow Nation». Keeping a fine balance between the hardship and the heart for her country, Prof. Alida Herbst introduced her audience at Toni-Areal Zurich to the social and economic challenges of South Africa and opened a door into a completely different, colorful and fascinating world.

A Rainbow of Colors and Cultures

With various videos and anecdotes, Alida Herbst took the ZHAW students and staff members on a trip to the other end of the globe, pointing out the geographical differences and the cultural diversity. While Switzerland has four official languages, South Africa has no less than 11! Alida explained some common terms that are found in the daily language use of all South Africans. Her playful introduction through language worked like a short cut into the culture and the thinking of the South African people. In many cases, the audience immediately saw the linguistic connection to European heritage and the historic meaning of things. She also offered sound bites of the Khoisan language, one of the indigenous languages that is spoken with click consonants. To European ears this language sounds like music, like a rhythmic rap. In a next step, she gave us an overview over the ethnic structures and the various food specialties. What most people don’t know: South Africa has the largest Indian population outside India. So, it was not surprising to see Indian Curry among the national food specialties of South Africa. And, of course, she listed the great African drinks: the famous cape wines and Rooibos tea, which today is known around the world and appreciated for its soothing and anti-aging effects. Alida Herbst introduced her country from all angles, displaying the South African soccer and cricket teams and some culturally important songs like the National Anthem or Asimbonanga, a tribute song to Nelson Mandela. She also featured famous faces and historic figures, while openly speaking about the political and economic landscape.

Thousands of Children Bereft

Cautiously, Alida Herbst led us into the challenging world of social work in South Africa. Since she is specialized in the field of trauma and bereavement, she was considered to give us an overview – or at least a glimpse – into her work. She painted a diverse image of a strong and hopeful nation that was deeply torn in the past, struggling to find common ground since 1994 and today, has to cope with major social issues deriving from poverty and HIV. According to Professor Herbst, 36 percent of the population lives on less than 2 Euro per day. This makes it all the more difficult to sustain physical and hygienic health. Though in the past two decades, the number of people affected by HIV has been stabilizing worldwide, South Africa is still among the most affected countries. Estimates show that around 6.8 million people are currently infected in South Africa. With a population of around 54 million people, this indicates a rate of more than 12 percent of the entire nation. UNAIDS recorded an estimated death rate of around 140’000 people in South Africa only for the year 2014. The pandemic leaves hundreds of thousands of children orphans. From a demographic point of view, HIV has torn a significant hole into the social tissue of the nation. «Many children lose both parents to HIV», Alida Herbst tells us. In order not to increase their trauma of losing their parents by adding the trauma of losing their homes and their siblings on top, children are usually kept together, if possible. Though social workers are always trying to find relatives such as uncles and aunts to take care of the kids, the economic circumstances often do not allow adding all siblings from one family to another. That is why fostering grandparents have become an important pillar for social work. «We support and train many grandparents in their new role», Herbst explains. This turns out to be harder than one would think. First of all, both the grandparents and the children are in a state of mourning, since they have just lost direct and close relatives. Then the gap between them is often more than a simple generation gap. Many of these grandparents have never been to school, or if they have, they only received basic schooling – and that was more than 40 years ago. «Just imagine how hard it is even for parents to support their children in their school homework. Grandparents suddenly have to have a constant eye on the little children, keep up the discipline for the elder ones, make them do their homework and help them plan their future. That is a great task for many elderly people who are struck by poverty and health issues themselves.» However, according to Herbst, that is the best scenario, since in many cases, there are no relatives to take care of the children at all and orphanages are outnumbered by all the children bereft and in need.


Child-Headed Households

Most orphanages are completely overwhelmed. That’s why in South Africa, Alida tells us, one can find «child-headed households». The term describes a family structure that European countries know from past war periods: When there are no relatives and children do not have any place to go, the eldest child sometimes has to take over the lead of the entire family. This means that for example a 16 year old must take responsibility for three younger brothers and sisters. One can imagine that such a child has to live a life that is hardly suitable for a child. But in many cases, this is their best way to go forward as a family. «I compare it with a post-war era, where the complete middle generation is lost», Alida continues. So, in a way, one could say, social workers in South Africa are facing the task of filling a generational gap and trying to offer the next generation at least a basis for a new future. To give us an idea of the situation, Alida offers some figures: “International standards do not allow more than 10-15 foster children being assigned to one social worker”, she explains. «In South Africa, however, one social worker may have to attend to up to 450 foster children.»

Awareness is Key to Self-Management

These numbers trigger questions amongst our psychologists and students: What about burnouts of social workers? How does North-West University train their students in keeping a healthy self-management? Alida Herbst attends to all questions in great detail, not only during the lecture but also afterwards at the networking-aperitif. This made the international exchange of knowledge and scientific expertise specifically interesting. «We teach our students to take full responsibility for themselves. They learn how to find their own personal ways to care for themselves because no one else can do it for them.» As hard as it sounds, South Africa cannot afford to lose even one of its well-trained social workers or psychologists. And the challenge is truly overwhelming. An entire generation of children, in many cases affected by multiple trauma: bereavement of parents, poverty, the daily struggle for food and income, and in many cases physical and sexual violence. «Awareness is key to self-management. We make our students understand their own situation. They have to find personal ways of visualizing their role in the greater system. One of the exercises that help them understand is that we make them fill a clay pot with symbols that show their situation and the importance of self-management.» The findings are as simple as surprising: «One student, for example, put a sponge in the pot. It stood symbolically for absorbing client’s issues like a sponge, yet at the same time understanding that a sponge is of no use when it is fully wet.» In this case, the sponge stood for the balance between taking in and letting go again, in order to be useful and professionally functioning. «Another symbol was a bird bath. These little bowls constantly need to be filled with clean water. If there is no water, the bath is useless. However, if there is water, the birds will come and – by all means – will leave a mess behind. In order to remain a functional bird bath, the bowl has to be cleaned regularly to prevent infections and diseases for the birds. Only with regular cleansing and the constant provision of clean water will that bowl remain a functioning bird bath.» These are simple exercises one might argue. But as psychology has proven ever so often in marketing: The simple image sticks best. And it sticks even better, if you find it yourself.

New Generation, New Hope

Although social workers in South Africa have to cope with many problems, Prof. Alida Herbst has her eyes fixed on the positive changes and the path forward: «With the National Development Plan (NDP), we are working on a Vision for 2030», she is convinced. The National Development Plan derived from the Millennium Development Goals for 2015. In the NDP, these goals are taken forward and translated into goals especially for South Africa. Of course, Alida Herbst is aware of the fact that it may be difficult to eliminate poverty by 2030. But she also sees the need to aim high in order to achieve anything great at all. However, above all plans she sees the most powerful potential for South Africa’s development in the new generation: «Former generations were carrying the burden of the Apartheid experience. The generation born after 1994 is different. They have a new perception, new hopes. And we strive to leave no one behind.»


Connected in Science

ZHAW School of Applied Psychology in Zurich teams up with NWU School of Psychosocial Behavioural Sciences in South Africa. The two universities plan cooperation programs in the field of research internships (NWU students come to ZHAW), exchange programs (ZHAW students visit NWU) as well as cooperation in research and doctoral dissertations.


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