So what did you do for Mandela Day?

Tata Madiba turns 93 years old today. In honour of the many years he spent in service of South Africa and in fact all of humanity, 18 July is “Mandela Monday”. Citizens are asked to spend 67 minutes in service of their community – one minute for every year that Nelson Mandela worked for freedom, peace and equality.

Living in South Africa there has naturally been hype about this for some time and I have been mulling over the idea incessantly.

One question I have asked is, “Should doctors and nurses and social workers (etc) feel obliged to participate?”

Yeah, I know that sounds incredibly selfish and it is very out of character for me. However, my fellow medical students and I pay extremely high fees to be used as free labour in hospitals. You want to see a chaotic South African casualty ward? Arrive on a weekend where all undergraduate medical students are on holiday.

And I think that perhaps taking a nap for 67 minutes so that I may study more effectively and treat my patients better and not have a nervous breakdown one day may be a greater service to my country.

My mother holds a degree in social work, considered a scarce skill in South Africa. She is paid pennies for a thankless jobs, where she enters some of the most dangerous areas in the province without police assistance.

I think she, and others like her, should be allowed to recoup in order to give them the strength to go for another day, and another, and another…

On the other hand, perhaps the idea is to do something other than your work, however humanitarian your everyday life is.

Then there are individuals in society who seriously need to learn to give back to their communities. Stock traders and business tycoons who console themselves that they are assisting in the flow of currency must remember that their currency flow does nothing for the child on the street.

My biggest concern about initiatives such as these is the South African mindset of getting things for free. You may recall that inhabitants of Soweto recently caused massive damage to property because they didn’t have electricity. Electricity for which they do not pay.

The truth is that even as the child of a comfortable household, I knew that I would not get new clothes if I did not do my part around the house or if the telephone bill was too high. So I am hesitant simply to hand goods out. I would like for a child to be rewarded with a pretty dress for improving her math grades or behaving better in class.

I will not build a house for someone if they are sitting lazily on the pavement. And I certainly will not participate in the clean-up drives around the country. Cleaning up the streets is the government’s job and if they fail to fine those who litter then I am sorry, but I will not compensate for their inefficiency.

Community service is good, but the government must do their job.

As for my first question… I think I know what those who work daily in areas of service should do for these kind of events: they should assist the rest of the country to do their part. Open up the doors for citizens to visit the hospital wards, tell them if the children need toys. Give people the opportunity to educate communities about transmissible diseases, or to plant vegetable gardens. I know of so many people who don’t reach out simply because they don’t know where or how to start.

Despite my ranting, I think Mandelay Days are great. I simply think that they need not be as unidimensional as we tend to interpret them.

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