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Poverty porn and the problem with CEOs playing homeless

In less than a month, some of South Africa’s richest CEOs will sleep on the streets for the 702 Sun International SleepOut. The event aims to raise money for homeless people, but unfortunately, the CEOs seemed to have missed the memo on what it actually means to be homeless, writes RA’EESA PATHER.

The SleepOut is marketed as an “inaugural event”, an opportunity to “rise to the challenge” and “spend a night under the stars”. But homelessness is not an event and the millions who sleep on the street might not share this romanticised idea of life on the streets in the cold of winter.

Homelessness affects the health and well-being of millions of South Africans. Every year, dozens of South Africans die of exposure or in fires caused when braziers used for warmth topple over. A study in June 2010 reported that 50% of homeless people suffer from mental illnesses.

The 702 Sun International SleepOut, which follows hot on the heels of a global SleepOut campaign, will raise funds for Girls & Boys Town – a non-profit that cares for underprivileged children and families.  Yet, as the CEOs prepare to take to the streets armed with sleeping bags and blankets for one night on 18 June, many South Africans won’t even have the option of a blanket to keep warm through the winter.

“When I die and go to heaven, God will know what situation turned me to be corrupt sometimes,” Trevor Gertz told the Mail & Guardian in a 2014 article on homelessness. “It’s not easy for me because I’m a hobo, so I cannot go to a person who is not a hobo and say, ‘Sorry, can you help me? I’m hungry.’”

Sleeping on a well-lit sidewalk in Sandton, surrounded by friends and cameras, with the knowledge that you can return to your warm bed tomorrow is nothing like sleeping under a dark bridge not knowing if tonight is the night a stranger will steal everything you own, assault you, or call the police to kick you off the kerb. This publicity stunt simply doesn’t sit well.

The SleepOut has raised more than R10-million and so it could well help those who need it, but being charitable should be done with respect for the dignity of those who live harsh realities.

The voyeurism of initiatives like the SleepOut may do more to laud people “using their influence to change the lives” of street children than it might to actually engage with the children and families who they are talking about.

What comes to mind is, of course, poverty porn. If you’re not familiar with the term, World Relief’s Emily Roenigk, neatly sums up what poverty porn is and why it’s a problem. For one thing, it depicts poverty as “merely the observable suffering resulting from a simple lack of material resources”, while failing to tackle the systems that have created poverty; for another, it promotes charity and not activism.

“Sustainable change in poor communities is more than the sum of its financial donations,” Roenigk writes.

How many of the CEOs will rally for the systemic change needed to create jobs and housing opportunities, rather than writing a fat check after taking advantage of the marketing and networking opportunities that this event will bring?

– Featured image by Niko Knigge via Flickr.
3 Comments
  1. Ebrahim Kadwa says

    lets look at it this way. Thats 10 Million rand more towards uplifting lives albeit at the cost of the publicity . We will not know what its like to be homeless unless we are actually homeless. I think its for the CEOs to judge their intention.

    After that the drive must still continue to find long term solutions, Sleepout or no Sleepout.
    Il take something over nothing.

  2. Derek Alberts says

    Unbelievable.
    Have we become British suddenly? A nation of whiners who moan just for the sake of it. R10 million is being raised! If not more. CEOs are, by an large, educated people, and I’m sure they absolutely realise that what they are doing is by no way a reflection of what homeless people experience on a daily basis. However, it is taking them completely out of their comfort zone and giving them a tiny taste of the harshness of homelessness, while raising much-needed money in the process. Is it a publicity stunt? Who cares when so much is being raised. This campaign will do so so much more good than harm, and for that it can only be commended.
    But by all means, moan about it. I’m sure the beneficiaries of Boys & Girls Town would quickly scoff at the measly R10 mill knowing that those privileged CEOs had a well-lit street to sleep on.
    Outrageous

  3. […] Fue el disparo de salida a otros programas similares, desde una versión irlandesa llamada The Estate a los que seguían el estilo de esos coachs de la vida como The Fairy Jobmother, que aseguraba querer ayudar a las familias a reintegrarse al mercado del trabajo. Mientras, iniciativas que buscaban dar publicidad a algo impreciso como SleepOut, en la que CEOs dormirían por una noche en la calle, en teoría para llamar la atención al problema de los sintecho, en la práctica también para ofrecer muestras de empatía de las clases altas y, finalmente, ha servido para que cada año que se realice arrecie una discusión sobre si es poverty porn y qué finalidad no solo se persigue sino, incuso, se logra. […]

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