Frontline Initiative International

The Role of DSPs During the Transformation of Post-Apartheid South Africa


Allister Butler is head of department at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa

Any discussion of the roles of Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) in a post-apartheid South Africa has to be viewed within the context of the significant socio-political, economic and human transformation which has occurred since the first democratic elections in April 1994. From 1984 to 1994, the Nationalist Party enforced a policy of apartheid, the legalized political, social, educational, and geographical segregation of non-European people. As the country has since embarked on a rigorous program of truth and reconciliation (chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu), as well as a national commitment toward the establishment of reconstruction and development programs and initiatives, the role of DSPs has become increasingly more diverse and labor intensive.

The role requirements, expectations, as well as the desired skill proficiency levels of DSPs greatly resembles South Africa’s sociopolitical upheaval. Though there is a recognized need for standardized skill proficiencies, formal progress toward this has been difficult. The daily work of DSPs continues to be vague, confusing and uncertain regarding the role of their particular profession in the field of South African support and services. For example, those traditionally in youth work believe that their job skills transfer to the mental health field, but no standard exists to measure these skills from one field to the next. As a result, there is much territorial fighting among DSPs across many fields. Many DSPs have received little formal training. Thus, there is concern that because there is no standardization of skills, those in supports services in South Africa will become more diversified, while not necessarily more competent. A new impetus toward professionalism is beginning to predominate the DSP field, however, and more emphasis is being put on outcome-based training for DSPs. Training institutions now have to “produce” DSPs that have a far more relevant and broad knowledge base and skill level. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Sahara Africa illustrates this increased relevance. The apartheid regime established no program for education about HIV/AIDS prevention (primarily because the widespread notion that AIDS is a “nonAfrican” disease). Thus, DSPs had very few resources to handle this issue in their respective fields. After 1994, the National Government of Unity provided DSPs with training and materials for HIV/AIDS education as a preventative effort. As the number of gay youth who live on the streets has increased, so has the need for these preventative efforts. Youth workers may not only secure food and shelter for them but also do the following—

  • Run community awareness campaigns though all forms of the media.
  • Give HIV/AIDS education, including condom distribution.
  • Encourage gay youth to meet with helping professionals for safer-sex education, substance abuse counseling, psychological assistance, etc.
  • Provide counseling for individuals and groups.

Financial and human resources for these endeavors have not increased proportionally. Thus, though DSPs have training that is more relevant to their contexts, their jobs are bigger, more complex and more demanding than ever.

One of the greatest challenges that faces direct support in South Africa is the need to develop policy and practice based on the vision and feedback of DSPs and those who receive services. What is still needed is a shift from the medical model of viewing people in terms of weaknesses, categories, labeling and curing, toward the adoption of a more empowerment-based model which focuses on strengths, understanding and recognizing practical support systems, competency building, developing nurturing environments and viewing individuals, groups and communities as partners and consumers of support services. The main challenge for DSPs in South Africa’s new democratic era is to continue its commitment in responding to the needs of people at a community-based level and ensuring that all forms of support services are offered with the view toward building empowering partnerships with consumers. South Africa, however, has already proven to the world and to itself that it is up to the challenge of acknowledging that its greatest strength lies in the diversity and courage of its people.