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Why we’re wrong to celebrate CEOs for simulating poverty for 12 hours

By Natasha Skoryk and Caitlin Spring

We’re a generation of clicktivists, incessantly raising awareness for a wide assortment of causes and social justice issues. But we rarely follow through with any tangible action or put our money where our “shares” are. So, logically, when initiatives do attempt to physically address societal problems, we should be lauding those attempting to deliver change.

Take the #CEOSleepOutZA — an event that raised R25 million for Girls & Boys Town, a worthy cause which focuses on the needs of at risk youth in Johannesburg. Surely the praise that the 250 captains of industry who participated in the event received is well-deserved? On a surface level, they addressed a real need, and tried to understand the experiences of others. Surely an event of this nature is far better than a simple hashtag?

Simply put, no. While physical bodies (with open wallets) in spaces are important, events like #CEOSleepOut actually do more harm than good. And as civil society we need to be more critical, and pressure industry to do better.

Firstly, there’s something extremely disingenuous about CEOs, some of the primary perpetuators of mass capitalism and the gross inequality in South Africa (where we have the highest Gini coefficient), making a once-off donation. One of the participating CEOs, Chris Griffiths of Anglo American Platinum, raised brows earlier this year when his salary was increased by a full million (to R18.5 million) at the same time that his company was retrenching workers. Amplats continues to refuse to increase miners’ monthly salaries. To claim concern for the wellbeing of the disadvantaged from his position is hugely hypocritical. A once-off donation, however welcome, is not sustainable. Wealth redistribution should come through wage reforms. The idea that a once-off donation, however large, would radically change the inequality landscape is laughable, and harmful. It perpetuates the idea of shining saviours providing salvation to the less fortunate, instead of changing systemic inequality through job creation and fair pay packages. Moreover, we ironically celebrate the people who perpetuate the causes of inequality while they superficially treat a few of its symptoms.

Gauteng premier David Makhura, Tery Volkwyn and Parks Tau during the inaugural 702-Sun International “CEO SleepOut” initiative on June 18 2015 in Johannesburg. (Gallo)

Gauteng premier David Makhura, Terry Volkwyn and Parks Tau during the inaugural 702-Sun International “CEO SleepOut” initiative on June 18 2015 in Johannesburg. (Gallo)

There is something to be said for the idea of walking in another’s shoes, though. Perhaps the idea of the country’s 1% flocking to the streets to understand what it is like to be homeless is important. As mentioned earlier, South Africa has the highest Gini coefficient in the world. We see extreme poverty right next to staggering wealth. When we can barely walk down the street without stepping over a homeless body, it’s easy to become desensitised, to be unable to see the people we step over as human. It’s a defence mechanism — a way to deal with the guilt and shame that such poverty inspires. Perhaps the only way to truly understand and sympathise with the breadth of lived experience in the country is to attempt to personally go through it. Perhaps, given humans are inherently flawed, we can only truly empathise from a place of shared understanding and common experience. That may be a depressing admission on the human condition, but it’s a worthwhile thought. Does this justify the way CEOs appropriated and hijacked the lived experiences of homeless people last week? Were homeless people consulted? Were they asked if this was offensive to them or if there was another way to raise money for their interests? Or do we not actually care about homeless people enough to ask? Wait — what!?

Of course, it would be impossible to “simulate” poverty in an organised event. There is no way a night or two on the streets would give anyone an understanding of what it’s like to live with no idea as to where your next meal is coming from, no healthcare, no sanitation, no clean clothes, constant fear of violence and the array of other very real concerns that living on the streets would entail. Claiming understanding of such a lived experience after a one night foray into homelessness is offensive. To pretend such a brief experience is representative of the real lived experience of homeless people would be a lie. However, one may concede that it may make a difference in personal worldview.

The problem is, the CEOs didn’t even bother trying to understand the experience they were simulating. Their homelessness came complete with K-Way jackets, security guards, portable iPhone chargers, and sanitation in a cornered off part of Sandton. It was a blatant and horrifying mockery of the lives of millions of South Africans. At least go one night without the internet, seriously?

It achieved nothing sustainable. It did nothing to effectively change wealth distribution patterns in this country, it did not help participants to understand those less fortunate (it just constituted a fun urban camping adventure, and create networking experience). It has distracted us as a nation from focusing on those whose stories deserve to be told — actual homeless people.

Instead of hailing those CEOs as heroes, South Africans need to think deeper. We need to look at the structural and ideological reasons that allow these inequalities to exist, that allow many people’s humanity to be denied as we roll up our windows and lock our car doors at traffic lights. What these CEOs did was nothing compared to the struggles many South Africans go through every day, those are the real heroes in this story.

Natasha Skoryk is in her third year at the University of Cape Town and is currently serving as the internal deputy chair of Ubunye. Caitlin Spring is completing her honours in gender and transformation at the University of Cape Town and is the communications and strategy intern for the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation.

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