South Africa: Rich in Culture, Social Justice, and Hope

by Makenzie Petzel, ’16 (Social Work & Spanish; Arlington, Minn)


Makenzie (on the right) with her South African pen pal

The Department of Social Work at Minnesota State University, Mankato has a strong relationship with the Department of Social Work at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa. Our department at Minnesota State gives students the opportunity to travel to the city of East London, South Africa to meet fellow social work students, tour the country, learn about its history of social development, and work with an organization called CATCH Projects (Caring, Affirming, Training for Change). CATCH’s mission is to partner with community residents and champion active citizenship in the community of Mzamomhle in order to protect and promote the health and rights of vulnerable women, children and families impacted by poverty, violence and AIDS.

The experience of traveling to South Africa in May of 2015 challenged my thinking on how I live my life as a person and as an aspiring social worker. Throughout the trip, I compared the nature of the delivery of social services and governmental attitudes in the United States to what I was learning about social justice and the effects of apartheid in South Africa. I saw a greater level of passion for social justice among the South African students than I have during my classes at MSU Mankato. Now, this could be due to the fact that South Africa has greater cohesion in attaining social justice for all, or it could be due to individual differences among the people. Regardless of the reason, the difference in level of passion in students was evident. In my opinion, all social work students are motivated to help other people; otherwise they would not choose the profession. However, individual passion plays itself out differently for each person in the field in which they want to work and how vocal they are of their passion.

South Africa

A glimpse of the community of Mzamomhle

This experience also taught me a lot about privilege and opened my eyes to how blessed I have been in my life, in my upbringing, and how well my needs were provided for as a child and into adulthood. Happiness is not in the amount of things we have or where we live, it’s about the support around us and making the most of what we have. I can never say I know how it feels to grow up in poverty like many of the children in South Africa have, but I can use what I have been blessed with in my life to help others in my practice. For the most part, this will play out as I use my education in social work to ethically advocate for clients, but my passion for volunteer work, connection to my church community, and community connections can, and likely will, help me learn of programs and organizations to which I can refer my clients for additional support.

Going forward from this trip, I hope to always remember the level of passion and commitment to social justice I witnessed during my short time in the country. The organizations we visited in South Africa mentioned the phrase “planting seeds” on multiple occasions. Even on my own, I can plant seeds for change with every interaction with individuals, families, groups, communities, and greater society. Social problems in the United States are widespread and too big for any one person to tackle on his or her own, but if I am able to help one client beat homelessness, unemployment, or drug addiction through direct practice and referral, work is being done to break the negative cycles of social problems across the country. I believe it is important not to underestimate our power as individuals and in collaboration with others to promote change in our agencies, communities, and nations. I sincerely hope that greater passion for social justice was sparked for my fellow classmates as it was for me through this experience in cultural exchange.


The new community garden of CATCH


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