Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Work


Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work

First Advisor

Deena Mandell

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor


Though significant transformation has occurred in post-apartheid South Africa, extensive poverty, AIDS and violence present major challenges. The capacity of families and local networks, undermined by apartheid policies, continue to be depleted, leaving children vulnerable. During the apartheid era, the child welfare sector, despite its intention of supporting children and families, utilized interventions that failed to address the needs of the majority and weakened family life. Post-apartheid, government has presented Developmental Social Welfare—with its family-centered, rights-oriented, community-based, participatory, generalist and intersectoral approach—as an indigenous correction to the previous expert-driven, pathologizing, individualistic, discriminatory and costly approaches.

Employing a Foucauldian genealogy or “history of the present”, this study explores the consistencies and shifts in current and historical child welfare discourses, reflected in more than 200 agency and government documents. The main finding is that the Child Protection Discourse, having been a determining discourse in the apartheid era, has remained at the forefront of child welfare thinking. The narrative, reinforced by an International Anglo-American Discourse, eclipses the Developmental Discourse, with the child welfare community continuing to employ a harm/safety-based orientation rather than a holistic understanding to construct child welfare.

This study provides new insights about the manner in which the Developmental Discourse is weakened. Child Protection oriented policies intersect well with the governmental shift towards individualized, neo-liberal philosophies and with a Rights Discourse. In addition, the resource and personnel crises emphasize remedial rather than preventive interventions as core activities. The inadequate and inconsistent conceptualization of a Developmental Discourse has allowed the language of Transformation (participation, equity, indigenization, empowerment and prevention) to be reconstructed within a Child Protection Discourse.

Governmentality operates through the Developmental and Child Protection discourses, racialized subjectivities intersecting with notions of the ‘poor beneficiary’ to entrench intrusive and paternalistic measures. As the Child Protection discourse is central, subjects tend to be scrutinized, individualized and blamed for their problems by social workers constructed as experts rather than as facilitators and enablers.

The thesis concludes by considering ways in which the South African child welfare community can resist the influence of the Child Protection Discourse and reinforce a Developmental child welfare discourse.

Convocation Year


Included in

Social Work Commons