It seems like everyone and their mama wants to walk a mile in poor people’s shoes. From Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich’s commitment to live on $4.50 a day to highlight food insecurity, to Cory Booker’s Food Stamp challenge, many are using their notoriety to draw attention to larger issues. But what about those who are just curious to see what poverty feels like?
Recently, a White South African family traded their cushy suburban digs to see how their poorest countrymen live.
Julian and Ena Hewitt moved (along with their two daughters) just six miles away from their gated estate in Pretoria, to a tiny shack in Phomolong, a densely packed shantytown. The Hewitt’s blogged about their “experiment in radical empathy,” which found the middle-class family living next door to their part-time housekeeper (let that sink in) in one room house with no electricity or running water.
“Like so many people in South Africa, we live in a bubble,” Ena Hewitt explained the reason for the move, “We wanted to get outside that bubble.”
The Hewitts spent the month of August slumming it and documenting their experience, which divided many in South Africa. While some commended the family for daring to give up the comforts of home to live with only the basics (food, clothing, and shelter), others derided the couple for their experiment. Many felt the attention the Hewitts received only further highlighted the disparities in poverty rates among Black and White South Africans, noting that poor Black South Africans are wholly invisible until they are being gawked at by tourists or their White compatriots looking to see what it’s like to be poor.
Busi Dlamini, executive director of Dignity International, a rights group, said that the Hewitts’ motives were clearly noble, but that their experiment in township living was bound to be fraught given the history of South Africa.
“It is what I call poverty pornography,” Ms. Dlamini said. “They put themselves at the center of the narrative that reinforces the centrality of whiteness in South Africa.”
Osiame Molefe, a writer who is working on a book about race relations in South Africa, wrote in an e-mail that “the Hewitts’ empathy project is a performance of the privilege of being relatively wealthy and white.” He added: “They have sought out, won and accepted sympathy and praise for living the hardships others experience daily without receiving the commensurate plaudits.”
Unlike others who want to help, the Hewitts did not choose donate money, build homes, or start a school; their experiment was personal.
“We’re doing it for ourselves,” Mr. Hewitt explained, “We’re doing it to change ourselves.”
Because of its horrific history of apartheid, South Africa still struggles with deep racial divides. Even poor residents live in racially homogeneous districts, keeping the country’s poor White and poor Black residents apart.
Although their parents were horrified by their move, the Hewitts wanted to cross the racial divide and expose their daughters to South Africa’s Black residents. While they are back home, the Hewitts say they will continue to keep in contact with their former township neighbors.