Delegates made several site visits while in South Africa. Here, they listen to their guide during a trip to Robben Island.
NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark led a delegation of 110 social workers to the Republic of South Africa in October through a continuing collaboration with People to People Ambassador Programs, NASW and the NASW Foundation.
Delegates visited the major cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg for exchange sessions, site visits and cultural activities. Social workers from the U.S. gained a better understanding of the issues that affect access to social services as they especially relate to women and girls, palliative and hospice care, orphaned children and public health, Clark said.
She noted that while South Africa has an established social work workforce, providers face challenges in meeting the high number of individuals and families seeking assistance.
"The needs of clients and the way social workers help is very similar to here in the U.S.," Clark said. "However, the country is dealing with much higher levels of poverty and under-resourced areas. There are more than a million orphaned children there who have lost their parents to AIDS-related illnesses." The country is also challenged by accommodating the needs of increasing immigrant populations from neighboring Zimbabwe, she said.
The social work exchange offered an opportunity for social workers in both countries to gain better insight into how the profession operates in their respective countries and a chance to examine areas for possible future collaboration.
"The people there are friendly and earnest about working with us to improve their social work programs," Clark said.
Delegates made several presentations to various members of the social work agencies and non-governmental agencies in South Africa. Topics included poverty and homelessness, HIV/AIDS and orphaned and vulnerable children.
There were also panel discussions led by delegates at various community centers. Attendees also met with social work faculty at different universities.
Site visits included the Masibambisane Centre for orphaned and vulnerable children, the Thembalethu Drop-in Centre for Girls and the University of Stellenbosch.
Clark said citizens are optimistic about the country's future. While the focus among the people is toward new opportunities, they are not forgetting their past, she said. Delegates visited the impressive Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Clark said she was moved by the exhibits that highlight the time before South Africa's liberation in 1994. Delegates also visited Robben Island where South Africa's first elected president under full representation, Nelson Mandela, was held captive for a major portion of his 27 years in prison before the country's liberation.
Delegates visited Orlando Children's Home, which takes in abandoned and orphaned children in Soweto. In this township, delegates were able to witness the sharp contrast between the wealthy and the poor. Palatial homes and shanty housing often co-exist in the same neighborhoods, Clark said.
Rebecca Myers, assistant to the executive director at NASW, also attended the trip and assisted Clark in leading delegates to various site visits. Cudore Snell, dean of the Howard University School of Social Work and a native of South Africa, also assisted in helping lead the delegation.
"The social workers in South Africa do so much with so few resources," Myers said. "Their optimism is extraordinary. That's important since they face such significant challenges."
There is much hope among the people, Myers said, and the government is focused on celebrating its diverse population. For example, South Africa has four languages in its national anthem and there are 11 official languages, she said.
"They are committed to really being a rainbow nation by celebrating their diversity - it's a huge source of pride and honor for them," Myers said. "What the social workers are doing there with the limited resources they have is inspiring to see."
The trip was the latest in a series of joint conferences to promote social work in other countries by NASW.
The association and People to People Ambassador Programs led social work exchanges to Cambodia in 2007 and to China in 2005 and 2000. People to People was created in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Its goal is to encourage international understanding among ordinary citizens by having them visit each other's countries.