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Humans

Privilege V. Privation

October 18th, 2013
in:Humans
by:Jonathan Lutes
located in:South Africa
tags:classism, mamelodi, poverty, racism, South Africa, squatter camp

Ena and Julian Hewitt and their two children made headline news in South Africa recently, by leaving behind their middle class lifestyle in a gated estate in Pretoria and living on a USD 300 budget in Mamelodi, a squatter camp six miles from their home, for the month of August.

The Hewitts are white, which  made them an unusual sight in their adopted neighborhood. For thirty-one days, the family lived the life of one of the millions of poor families in the country, and blogged about their experience (http://mamelodiforamonth.co.za/).  The Hewitts’ project spurred a debate and people responded with various feelings, as Lydia Polgreen reports in her article for the New York Times. Friends of the family, mostly fellow parents, were shocked that anyone would voluntarily put their children or themselves at such risk. Sibusiso Tshabalala, a black business man, felt insulted, saying that a white middle class family in South Africa should be able to engage black South Africans in a more meaningful way than turning them into a media spectacle. Others were rightfully concerned that the 31-day experience for the Hewitts should get so much attention, considering  the fact that it reflects the everyday life of millions of black South Africans. When asked why, the Hewitts said that they did not do it to get all this attention. They simply wanted to feel what it was like to live in Mamelodi, and for their children not to fear exploring their country and crossing boundaries. It was a great learning experience for the families and friends who visited them. Julian Hewitt, for instance, points out on his blog that more than half of their budget was spent on public transport, a figure that should be considered by businesses when employing people living in Mamelodi or other townships. They learned that the sense of community in Mamelodi – despite all the horrors of everyday life, including no electricity, no running water, open sewage and drug crimes in the street – was much more pronounced than in the gated bubble the Hewitts call their home. The month in Mamelodi may not affect the camp’s inhabitants, but it could inspire others to be less afraid to leave the bubble they live in – even in places outside South Africa. The simplest message derived from this experience was delivered by a family friend, was quoted on Julian’s blog: it felt ordinary just to be there, not as an observer or an academic, but as a human, as part of it all.

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Jonathan Lutes
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