Politically incorrect since 2009
13 December 2017 21:04 (South Africa)
Opinionista Marelise van der Merwe

Poverty porn: Welcome to your five-star shack hotel

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    MareliseBW
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Some enterprising folks have started a new trend in holiday chic: shantytown resorts. Yes, you read that right.

I was trawling around on the internet, as one does of a Sunday afternoon, when I noticed that, doing the rounds on the Twittersphere, was a quaint new holiday option for rich South Africans in Bloemfontein. Stand back, township tours, here’s something for the buggers with really bad taste: an “authentic shantytown experience within the safe environment of a private game reserve.”

“Millions of people are living in informal settlements across South Africa,” the sales pitch begins. “These settlements consist of thousands of houses also referred to as Shacks, Shantys or Makhukhus. A Shanty usually consists of old corrugated iron sheets or any other waterproof material which is constructed in such a way to form a small ‘house’ or shelter where they make a normal living.”

Please note the ultra-PC use of “house” in quotation marks, by the way, lest you be silly enough to mistake a shack-dweller’s house for a real home – you know, where actual, real people live actual, real lives. (How clever of them to make a “normal living”!)

The holiday resort I had spotted, which can be viewed in all its glory here, is part of a luxury hotel and spa, and boasts “completely safe and child friendly” facilities, which should be your first clue that it’s really nothing like your average township. Further, it rather ironically offers you a “unique accommodation experience”, which I find especially hilarious, considering the millions of South Africans that live in shantytowns all over the country. Unique? Not so much for the majority of poor South Africans who don’t have a choice.

But I digress. This site – sjoe, dear reader, you have to see it to believe it. If I didn’t constitutionally object to supporting this type of shit, I’d want to go to the resort tomorrow just to see it with my own eyes. These people need to go back to school or, at the very least, get a dictionary and look up “irony”, because they’ve got no sense of it. At least, as my partner pithily said, they had the good grace not to pose little thin black children on the streets of the resort for an amusing touch of authenticity.

“A paraffin lamp,” the website explains helpfully, “along with candles, a battery operated radio… and a drum where ‘they’ make fire for cooking is normally part of this lifestyle.” (Note the anonymous ‘they’.)

My personal favourite part of the advert, however, gleefully goes on to list its facilities. “Underfloor heating!” it shouts. “Donkey geysers! Electricity!” And the piece de resistance: “Long-drop effect toilets!”

If, dear reader, you have not facepalmed yet, please do so now, especially when I tell you that 711 people “liked” the description on Facebook and a further 737 liked the photo gallery. I have to ask: what is wrong with these people? What is wrong with South Africa? “This is the first-ever shantytown in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access!” boasts the website. So, one might add, not really like a shantytown at all, is it? Except that you’ve made houses out of corrugated iron because in your marvellously privileged world, you think that poverty is – in the words of my friend Carla Lever – “just too darling”.

Now, I realise that it is hypocritical to get too angry about this sort of thing, because in a certain sense it is what many of us privileged folks do when we go on holiday: we rough it because we think it is quaint. We stay on farms in revamped labourer’s cottages; we go camping because we find it refreshing. And the reason we have the space to do that is because we don’t have to live like that all the time.

But there is something about this particular invention that struck me as so blatantly mercenary that I felt quite ill. It’s beyond poverty porn – it’s a de-humanisation of shack dwellers that turns them into ornaments, the stuff of an amusement park. It speaks of a distance that makes me feel we have not bridged any gaps in post-Apartheid South Africa; rather, that the chasms are getting wider. During Apartheid, the distance was often geographical; but it breaks my heart that now, when we are in plain sight of each other, there is still such distance, and such callousness.

It also makes me wonder about the staff of the establishment. Did any of them actually grow up in shantytowns? How do they feel about seeing their hometowns caricatured? Do they find the resort even vaguely “authentic” in the first place, or is the attempt merely insulting? Is it nostalgic? Offensive? Laughable? Hurtful? Or simply so far off the mark that none of it matters?

I would imagine that if the person who designed this resort read this column, s/he would claim the aim is to facilitate a greater understanding of what it’s like to live in a shantytown. I would answer: don’t bullshit me. Firstly, let’s not pretend your five-star resort is anything like the experience of living in poverty. And secondly, if anyone wants to know how the other half lives, all they have to do is ask, and listen to the answer. We can all cross some boundaries – we won’t die. What we never have to do is build a zoo. DM

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    MareliseBW
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

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