Nelson Mandela Had the Heart of a Social Worker

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – Madiba died yesterday at the age of 95 years old.  His life serves as an inspiration to people who believe that all human beings—regardless of our station in life—have dignity and worth and deserve to live our lives in ways that are meaningful to us.  He was a man who was in a word anti-evil.  Given the circumstances of his life—that the apartheid government of South Africa forced him to spend 27 years in prison mostly on Robben Island confined to a tiny cell—he had every right to be bitter and hateful towards his persecutors.  Yet he refused to hate.  He refused to even consider replacing white domination with black domination.  Confounding many of his supporters, Mandela went to great lengths to forgive his oppressors in order to achieve reconciliation among South Africans of all colors.

There is no way to explain people like Nelson Mandela, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., Golda Meir, Abraham Lincoln, CRSIP logoMahatma Ghandhi, and Mother Teresa to name a few transcendent human beings.  They were moved by faith, by a sense of destiny, by what they believed was possible.  They knew that their lives were finite—that their time on Earth was limited, but they had a vision of accomplishments that would live on far beyond their time.

Just as these transcendent figures lived their lives dedicated to the greater good for people, there are other people who are moved by greed, hate, and the need for dominance.  Some seek to wreak havoc on a grand scale like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Benito Mussolini.  Others seek to find a place in history through single acts of destruction through tragic events like bombings in Oklahoma City, suicide bombings across the Middle East, and the destruction of the World Trade Center.

But the vast majority of the billions of people who live and die on Planet Earth live our lives as Henry David Thoreau once said, “. . . in quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  Nelson Mandela was not an ordinary human being in any sense of the word.  And because there was a Nelson Mandela, apartheid as a means of governing is a thing of the past.  Because there was a Nelson Mandela, black South Africans are free to struggle to find better lives without that yoke around their necks.


Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island (Photo by Charles E Lewis Jr)

We all have a finite amount of time on this planet.  What we do with that time defines who we are.  We can spend our time accumulating money and wealth and at the end of our existence see the sum of our lives measured by the one who “has the most toys” as Malcolm Forbes once summed up life experiences.  Or we can measure our lives by what we have done to make this planet a better place to live for our fellow human beings and for future generations.

I believe that is the heart and spirit of social work.  I believe most social workers enter the profession because they truly want to devote their lives to helping people who are struggling to make it.  Whether they struggle because of physical and mental disabilities, trauma-filled lives, making poor choices, or just plain bad luck—they deserve the opportunity to live a meaningful existence.  Social workers believe people who find themselves on the bottom of the heap should get a helping hand.  That is what Nelson Mandela brought to us and that is what he left us.  He did not go to the grave with his song in him; he left his song with us.  We must never forget.

Written by Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D.
Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy

The post Nelson Mandela Had the Heart of a Social Worker appeared first on Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy.


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