Interview with Leslie Swartz, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Most of my work is in the area of disability studies, with a special emphasis on disability rights issues in Southern Africa. I also work on mental health issues.
It is impossible to work in the area of disability studies and not be interested in some way in care ethics. In our work on disability and access to health care, we are interested in the role played by informal paid or unpaid workers in disability care. In other work on language and access to mental health care, we have come to see the crucial but often invisibilised role played by cleaners and security guards in health care in low income contexts.
These are just two examples. I have also done some reflective work on questions of exploitative relationships with care workers in the context of chronic illness, drawing on my own experience with the illness and death of my mother.
I worked on a project with Vivienne Bozalek and Brenda Leibowitz and others on university transformation issues in South Africa and it was Vivienne and Brenda who introduced me to the field. Vivienne then invited Joan Tronto to South Africa and I grew very interested in her work. I am quite marginal to the field of care ethics – it is not my main area of concern but it has really influenced my thinking.
Two apparently simple things, but profound for me and my thinking: that we all rely on care all the time, and that care is often made invisible, with this invisibility often linked to exploitation commonly on lines of race, gender, class.
In the care ethics field in South Africa I have been very influenced by Vivienne Bozalek and Brenda Leibowitz, and Joan Tronto’s work is very important to me. More generally, I am very fortunate to have a wide range of people I work with in disability studies and mental health, some of them senior to me but some of them my students and I have learned from them all.
One person who had a huge influence on me personally and professionally was the late Alexander Phiri, who was secretary general of the Southern African Federation on Disability (SAFOD), which represents Disabled People’s Organizations in ten southern African countries. Alexander was a consummate disability activist who was seriously concerned with the political and personal development of people he worked with. He was very open and not doctrinaire, and extremely pragmatic.
Phiri lived in Zimbabwe and witnessed multiple assaults on rights, including the rights of disabled people, and he was able in a range of ways to make changes in difficult contexts. He also had the openness and generosity to accept me as a white non-disabled South African man to do some work for his organization – he was very aware of difference and identity but was able to see past the obvious and to think about what was best for his organization and the people it served. Although he was not an academic but he knew a lots about care.
A paper which Joan Tronto does not herself regard as a major contribution, published in Ethics and Social Welfare on what constitutes a caring institution has been very useful indeed for me and colleagues.
I am not an expert in this field but I think that we have used care ethics concepts in slightly different contexts – so our contribution is more about some applications than about bringing new knowledge as such. Here are some examples:
I think we need to know much more about men as carers and also about the importance of being a carer for people who are cast as in need of care (for example, disabled people and people with serious mental disorder caring for others). The question of the impact of technology on ecologies of care in low-income contexts is also an important one.
I think it is crucial to understand care and interdependence as central to life, public, private and political. The effacing of care from a range of discourses is a serious erasure.
My work is very interdisciplinary and quite scattered in some ways. I am very lucky to be learning from people who are more clearly focused on care ethics than I am, and I am grateful for this. I think the insights of this approach need to be disseminated to every discipline. Thank you for allowing me to learn from this field.
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