EMPOWERING THE INNOCENT: A HEROIC JOURNEY OF REPATRIATION

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Precious Mupenzi

  • 18,366 dedicated social workers in South Africa strive to safeguard children, with March globally recognised as Social Work Month, honouring their altruistic contributions.
  • Amidst the commemoration of World Social Work Day on 19 March, the recent repatriation of a two-year-old from Dakar Prison, Senegal, to South Africa resonates deeply, affirming the profound calling of social work.
  • Led by compassionate social worker Dikeledi Louw, the successful mission exemplifies the resilience and compassion of these unsung heroes, spotlighting their pivotal role in ensuring the welfare of vulnerable children globally.

Currently, 18,366 social workers are employed in the public service in South Africa and are dedicated to ensuring the protection of children. March is globally observed as Social Work Month, a time to reflect on and appreciate the contributions of these selfless heroes.

With 19 March marking World Social Work Day under the theme “Buen Vivir: Shared Future for Transformative Change,” the recent repatriation of a two-year-old toddler from a Dakar Prison in Senegal to South Africa reinforced the sentiment shared by most social workers that the profession is a calling.

The social worker leading this mission described the moment she first saw the toddler. In an attempt to gauge the child’s shyness, she opened her arms, and to her surprise, the toddler ran to her, melting into her embrace.

“Even the colleague from the mission said it was like the child knew that he was going to go with me and choose me of all the people waiting for him. I can say it was very easy for me to bond with the child, it just happened naturally,” said Dikeledi Louw.

She was part of a team of approved by Minister Lindiwe Zulu to travel to Senegal to repatriate the child to South Africa to reunite with the family in the Eastern Cape Province.

BORN BEHIND BARS

The toddler was born in Senegal and has been under the care of the mother, who was arrested last year in that country for drug trafficking.

The Department of Social Development (DSD) was notified by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) through its International Social Services (ISS) Directorate in August 2023 that the biological mother of the child was arrested in February of the previous year.

It is reported that shortly after her incarceration, she gave birth to the child. Due to the mother’s imprisonment, the child is considered to be in distress as prison is not a conducive environment for raising a child.

The South African government, through the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), initiated the process of repatriating the child by first consulting with the mother to determine her wishes for her child.

The mother designated the child’s grandmother as the guardian in South Africa while she served her sentence in Senegal.

The success of the repatriation was largely due to the compassionate efforts of the team of social workers, who spent five days in Senegal, prioritising the child’s best interests and patiently navigating the necessary processes.

“Senegal does not take responsibility for other children like South Africa does. South Africa always prioritises cases of foreign children, but in Senegal, it was realised that children are not always prioritised as vulnerable there. Even the presence of the South African Embassy representatives was not honoured nor respected. We had to queue at court like any other citizen, the judge had to first attend to criminal cases,” said Louw.

“According to the Law of Senegal, the mother was expected to be present at court as well as the prospective caregiver who was in South Africa, however, it was explained that the prospective caregiver does not have the financial means to travel to Senegal and hence the social workers came to Senegal to repatriate the child to South Africa. The Children’s Court in Senegal is conducted in a big panel and presided by the Judge/President of the Children’s Court,” she said.

SOCIAL WORKERS – OUR HEROES

Louw and her colleague, through this repatriation, have raised the South African flag high and become a beacon of hope for the more than 60 million South African children, even in Dakar, Senegal.

This was evident as the team from the Department of Social Development (DSD) awaited Louw and the child at OR Tambo International Airport. It is for these reasons that Louw, an unsung heroine, is being honoured.

Hailing from Pretoria, Louw joined the department in 2018. She serves as a Social Work Policy Developer with DSD under the International Social Services (ISS) Chief Directorate.

“Social Work is not just a profession, it also requires one to have passion, as passion can drive you to do your best irrespective of the challenges that you face as a Social Worker. Our work is diverse and requires multiple skills, and you always need to be prepared for any tasks that are assigned to you and you can never stop learning from this profession due to its diversity.”

She encouraged social workers to continue to do the good work they did.

“Continue to represent our country the best way we can, and in that way, other countries can learn the best practices from us,” she encouraged.

On 10 March 2024, as the hours, minutes and seconds got closer to the landing of the Ethiopian Airline that carried the precious cargo, emotions that engulfed those waiting could be felt in the air.

There was silence for a minute as Louw and the baby approached the arrival entrance and a sense of relief could be seen on everyone’s faces.

“I just sighed and said finally I am home with the baby, and it was such a relief for me,” said. Louw speaks of the moment when she finally landed on home soil. Since 2015 the department has repatriated 21 children who were distressed in foreign countries.

“There were too many children roaming the streets begging, and those children were of school-going age what triggered me was that other children were begging right next to the Court, and asked myself what is the government of Senegal or the Courts doing about that? I believe Senegal can learn from other countries on how to improve their childcare and protection systems,” concluded Louw of her mission to Senegal.”

 

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