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Opinionista

CEOs ‘sleep under the stars’: A new way to be out of touch

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Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar was born in Cape Town and raised by his determined mother, grandparents, aunt and the rest of his maternal family. He is an admitted attorney (formerly of the corporate hue), with recent exposure in the public sector, and is currently working on transport and infrastructure projects. He is a Mandela Washington Fellow, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, and a WEF Global Shaper. He had a brief stint in the contemporary party politic environment working for Mamphela Ramphele as Agang CEO and chief-of-staff; he found the experience a deeply educational one.

The CEOs Sleep Out campaign may have raised R25 million, but how much will this campaign do about the structural inequality and poverty that South Africa is burdened by? The simple truth is that it was not about those issues.

Gwen Lane in Sandton has returned to normality with not even a reminder that on Thursday, 18 June 2015, about 250 business executives (also known as some of the best-paid South Africans) opted to join the call to sleep on the streets in order to “raise awareness”.

The official website of the South African #CEOSleepOutZA campaign positions this initiative as a wonderful thing with the goal to “bring hope and a home to South Africa’s most vulnerable children”.

The branded ‘charitable’ event is headlined by Primedia’s 702 and Sun International, which drove the campaign to raise funds for The Girls and Boys Town Foundation, and the campaign requires business executives to pay R100,000 to “book … your place to sleep under the stars for one night”.

This phrase cheapens the lived reality of so many and it suggests that sleeping “under the stars” is somehow glamorous. It pays little mind to the fact that about 7,000 people sleep on the streets of Johannesburg every single day with no choice.

This ‘event’, however, was not supposed to be that real and so the business executives were provided with soup, safety, cosy fires, sleeping blankets, and the cocoon of Gwen Lane.

The Girls and Boys Town Foundation do wonderful and necessary work, reaching an annual average of 34,416 beneficiaries; however, this column is not about the good work that they do but rather about the nature of campaigns like this.

The #CEOSleepOutZA campaign is not a uniquely South African invention but rather it has been modelled on what has been rolled out in the urban centres of Australia and the United Kingdom before.

Last week, the local version brought in about R25 million from the theatrics that took place on Gwen Lane, Sandton.

However, when the campaign has been criticised, the reflexive and obvious retort has simply been “at least they have raised all of this money” or the even more obvious one of “can you do better than they did?”

Poverty is a structural reality. A reality forged by the history of South Africa, the status quo of our economy (that so many have bought into) and it has been exacerbated by the high levels of inequality that so many are forced to live with.

Homelessness is but a symptom of this structural reality and it is fundamentally flawed to believe that you can police, regulate and bylaw that reality away when you refuse to confront that structural reality.

Poverty is not a choice but rather it is structural reality. I wonder whether the business executives fully appreciate their own role in that system. No one woke up one day thinking it would be a fun idea to live on the street except perhaps the people who thought this campaign was a great idea.

The campaign may have raised R25 million but how much will this campaign do about the structural inequality and poverty that South Africa is burdened by? The simple truth is that this campaign was not about those issues.

In 2009, Mr Tokyo Sexwale, our then Minister of Human Settlements, and one of the country’s richest men, adopted a similar flair for the theatrics, and spent one night in Diepsloot, north-west of Johannesburg.

At the time, Mr Sexwale’s motivation for the idea was quoted as being “we are on a sincere listening campaign to have a proper discussion about the lives of the poor. I came here to sleep among them (shack dwellers) to experience how they live”.

The theatrics of campaigns like this may raise money, may print a few extra newspapers, may make interesting sound bites for radio and may be spoken about but they do not deal with the structural inequality and poverty that so many people are burdened with.

This campaign was only about the fact that some of the best-paid (and wealthiest) South Africans spent a night on a controlled and secure space where their cardboard boxes were new, their sleeping bags were warm, their bellies were filled and they were able to tweet and Instagram scenes from their ‘outing’ knowing that they would be going home in the morning returning to their lives and leaving behind the night of 18 June.

When I look at campaigns like #CEOSleepOutZA and when public officials go along “to sleep among them” then I sigh knowing that they do not fully appreciate that theatrics do not change the lives of those in Diepsloot or elsewhere.

Sadly, campaigns like this remind us all of our own flaws and refusal to confront poverty. We may smile broadly and proudly about the #CEOSleepOutZA campaign but when homeless people stand at traffic lights or come knocking at our door then many choose to be outraged and immediately reach for the security or police number to make “them” go away.

Structural realities such as poverty and inequality cannot simply be confined in a postal code or policed away from certain areas. It may be confined by some to campaigns like this and used to “raise awareness” but we should each ask ourselves why it is a good thing when it is presented in a polished campaign like this instead of the lived reality that so many encounter every single day of every single year.

This campaign could be described as a gimmick or even worse as ‘poverty porn’, but I find it simply distasteful, and for me it goes further to highlight how out of touch so many ‘leaders’ are.

These well-to-do South Africans have an important part to play in our democracy and I urge them and others like them to start confronting their own privilege and to use their power and influence to confront the underlying causes of poverty and inequality.

Only if that is done will we truly be able to lift our heads high instead of buying into the theatrics of wealthy people sleeping “on the streets” in cordoned-off area in Sandton where homeless people are rarely seen or even allowed.

This campaign may have raised substantial amounts of money, but that does not make it right. The mere presence of money does not cure it of its callous, out of touch and ‘poverty porn’ nature.

Surely we are better than this? Surely, we have a better way to raise awareness, but more importantly, surely we have the tools to deal with structural poverty and inequality in South Africa instead of this sort of gimmick? DM

Editor’s note: Great minds think alike. For further perspective on this subject, see Richard Poplak’s piece here. Please note that although the authors arrived at similar conclusions, the two pieces were written independently.

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