Hotspots of Violence or Hotspots of Poverty?

Hotspots, Social Work and Systems

In the last month a community known for gang violence has experienced a fresh gang war.  Ceasefire has been declared but members of the community will tell you that this is not the same as peace.  Depending on where you live in this community, determined whether or not you could go to school, your parents or caregivers could access transport to work as well as determined the level of heightened alertness and awareness that people are living with. 

Lorenzo Davids stated that these are not “hotspots of violence but hotspots of poverty”.  Perhaps if we visited the news headlines through this lens, it would change how we advocate and respond to what is happening.  The average age of boys being recruited into the gangs is between 9 and 11. Access to good enough education is more challenging than it is to join a gang.  Good enough education means your basic needs are met and the environment is conducive to learning.  Good enough education means a safe place of learning and belonging.

What do the gangs offer that schools, families and our systems don’t?  An alternative space of purpose and belonging, despite the cost.  An alternative space of being seen, of feeling valued and included. An alternative space in which immediate felt needs might be met. Yet, too often in response to this all, rather than expanding and deepening an understanding and response to the driving factors, the solution is to increase policing.  Something which has it’s place in immediate safety but is not the whole of the solution.  Unless we start addressing the drivers of violence – belonging and systemic issues – there will be ongoing flare ups of violence – whether in the form of gang fights or civil unrest.  

What is peace if it’s not ceasefire? Peace, real peace, will address and acknowledge the need to strengthen families, to address the inequity in the classroom environment and focus on hotspots of poverty, on the need for food and basic human rights to be secured.  Real peace would mean that all sectors impacting the people in the hotspots of poverty respond collaboratively.

As the International Month of Social Work draws to a close, we acknowledge the overwhelming numbers of cases that social workers are responsible for.  We also acknowledge that too often these are remedial cases rather than social workers proactively being able to work towards a space of peace and cohesion within families, schools, and communities.

Belonging for children and youth stems from knowing that they are seen, that they have something to offer and that their presence in the world is significant.  The lack of collaborative response to the challenges of vulnerable communities does not instill this into children. When children are asking why it has taken so long for someone to care, or when children’s court’s magistrates share case studies of children under the age of 12 who present themselves to the court for support without the presence of a caring adult, as adults, not just social workers, we have a responsibility to ask how are we holding ourselves as well as the systems at play accountable?

Accountable for care, accountable to ensure that we seek opportunities to partner and assist children and youth in being set up for success.  Partnership is not about rescuing, it’s about sharing resources, skills and knowledge sets across sectors to ensure that that the holistic needs of families are being met.  It’s about ensuring that a 9 year old boy has a space of belonging, a sense of purpose and the knowledge that he adds unique value to the world by being in it so that he doesn’t need to seek these things in a gang. A gang that seemingly offers respite from the world in which he isn’t seen, where tomorrow doesn’t matter because, how would it be different from today?

It’s time we ask for peace, real peace to be the goal, rather than just ceasefire in the hotspots. That might mean the police come in, but let that be backed with appropriate South African psychosocial care programmes for families. Programmes which address the children and families in the South African context.  Which acknowledge the systems as well as the individual challenges and how these interact with the reality that children and their families live in.

Let’s push towards peace.

Written by Alexa Russell Matthews