The eThekwini Municipality recently offered “an opportunity of a lifetime” for residents to sleep on the streets – for a night. Along with I-Care, a non-profit helping homeless kids, the purpose was to give people a taste of the hardships experienced by being homeless.
“Participants will spend one evening with homeless people of the city and share stories, give advice, fellowship — and possibly change somebody’s life,” said the city’s Vuyo Ndlovu. The invitation drew a response from a thousand or so residents.
It is surprising that Durban endorsed this, given that most metros perpetuate a discourse of wanting to “sanitise” the streets of “vagrants” when high-profile events hit their shores, the way Brazil and Durban did during the Soccer World Cups. Suddenly, they are humanising the homeless. But not quite.
The Sunday Tribune coverage didn’t even bother to get the full names of the black, homeless people in their pictures; everyone else is properly identified. The anonymity of poverty remains. The Independent newspaper printed a picture of Umhlanga residents smiling and dressed in cosy jackets splashed on the front page under the headline “a night under the stars”. How romantic. Actually, how patronising.
This idea is not new. South Africa is now replicating an Australian project by having the 702-Sun International CEO Sleepout. Writers Ra’eesa Pather, Andrew Gasnolar and Richard Poplak all offer separate, excellent critiques of this online.
There is no denying that these kinds of projects garner media attention, raise millions of rands, and lobby for the vulnerable in society. Credit must go to these people who get off their asses and do something tangible. For this reason, participants are helping create a culture of active citizenship. However, the road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions.
There are three serious problems with conceptualising initiatives in this way.
Firstly, you cannot imitate the psychology of being homeless. Not having a roof over your head, or surviving in a cardboard box with a thread bare blanket, are just some aspects. Homelessness is a painful psychological experience that cannot be replicated in any manner unless you are genuinely homeless. Let this point simmer for a bit before reading on. If you are homeless, you don’t know when it will end; you don’t know when you will be freed; you don’t know when government will keep its promises; you don’t know when you will eat again; you don’t know what the future will hold. Sleeping on the streets, for one night or one month, knowing you have a warm bed and fridge full of food to go back to, cannot be a reliable or valid exercise in creating empathy. If anything, it’s insulting.
The second issue is a misdiagnosis of the problem. Homelessness, like begging, is not a problem in and of itself. The problem is poverty and inequality. Homelessness is a symptom of poverty. Treating symptoms, while they may create temporary relief, will not cure the underlying problem. Where does poverty and inequality come from? The answer is complex, but it certainly is not something that can be solved by a little bit of outreach here and there or a couple of projects. The chief cause is our country’s long, long history of structural inequality and perversely unfair allocation of resources. People are not homeless by some chance accident or lack of hard work or drug problem. Poverty and inequality was deliberately created by deluded, unethical leaders during apartheid, who architecturally engineered our country in a particularly problematic manner that continues to be perpetuated, partly, by a new cadre of unethical leaders during democracy. For homelessness to end, we need to radically reimagine the South African landscape so that the underlying structure and design of our cities and towns creates enabling conditions for people to live and work meaningfully.
Lastly, I agree with cultural critics who call these kinds of projects “poverty porn”. They enable privileged people whose lived realities are utterly disconnected from poverty to voyeuristically dip in to a world that they find curious and foreign. These projects help appease historical guilt while leaving the root causes untouched.
Activism, not charity
To end all forms of inequality we need activism, not charity. And the form that this activism takes has to necessarily be a radical decolonisation of South Africa, which involves fairer and equitable access to land, housing, jobs, healthcare and education. Instead of solely focusing on the homeless, we should also question the conditions that enable a minority to be the super-wealthy.
Forget the homeless. The problem is with who’s rich, not who’s poor.
A version of this article is forthcoming in print in The Witness.