Trading Places: South Africa Style

Remember this movie? It's not easy when all the money is gone.
Remember this movie? It’s not easy when all the money is gone.
Hi Meltingpot Readers,

Have you ever thought about trading places with someone whose life is the polar opposite of yours, just to see ‘ how the other half lives?’ Usually when I play that game, the ‘other half’ I’m thinking about is the filthy rich. I like to test my moral compass to see what I’d do if money wasn’t an issue. Generally, I do do the right thing and give lots of my money to the poor and other noble causes. One thing I very rarely do however, is spend time imagining what my life would be like if I lived in one of the worst inner city communities in the United States. I don’t fantasize about moving to North Philadelphia for example, just to see if I could survive the deplorable conditions and unchecked violence that plagues many neighborhoods in that part of my adopted city.

But that’s exactly what a young white South African couple decided to do and they took their two young daughters, ages two and four, with them. Ena and Julian Hewitt, formerly of a gated community in Pretoria, South Africa, decided to move their young family into a shack with no running water or electricity in the heart of one of the city’s all-black townships. Coincidentally, the township lies only six miles from the Hewitt’s middle-class neighborhood. Of course, the Hewitt’s planned this experiment in living in squalor for only one month. They weren’t really about to give up their way of life in exchange for open sewers and good feelings, but they did commit to living like the natives for the entire month of August.

As you can imagine, their experiment caused a lot of controversy in South Africa. Many people questioned their motives and others simply suggested that it was a shame that urban poverty is only an issue when white people have to deal with it too. It’s a tricky situation to form an opinion about, but I’m thrilled that people are talking about it. And I’m also impressed with the Hewitt’s determination to go through with their experiment, despite the fact that many people, on both sides of the color line, urged them not to do it.

Please read the story yourselves in the New York Times and let me know what you think. Do you see this as just another example of “poverty porn” or is there a positive spin to this? Would you ever do anything like what the Hewitt’s did? Why or why not? I’m listening.


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2 Thoughts to “Trading Places: South Africa Style”

  1. Cyretha

    Last year we traveled to southern Africa. Part of our trip included visits to Windhoek, Namimbia and Cape Town, SA. While in Windhoek we visited Katutura, a township outside of the capital. I can tell you I don’t need a month to know about the abhorrent living conditions in a township. One afternoon was more than enough.

    May be living in the same country and knowing about life in a township is not the same as a foreigner seeing one on a spring afternoon. I cannot understand Mr. Hewitt’s need to “live the experience”. I would hope his concerns and now his additional knowledge about life in a township will prompt him to act and not just use this as a research experience.

    I would also like to know if Mr. Hewitt did any research about a person from a township living in his gated community for a month. Would a person like that feel empowered and return to the township and help develop programs to improve life there?

    In my opinion what is needed is a partnership between the private sector and the public sector. I think Mr. Hewitt’s time would be better spent on doing research about how to bridge the gap between the two sectors. I don’t believe it should just be left to the government to furnish public housing. We have seen this experiment in other countries. At the end of the day, people want respectable jobs and a decent place to live, not more research trying to understand how they live under dificult conditions.

    1. Ms. Meltingpot

      You speak the truth. I agree that what needs to happen is continual engagement of rich and poor instead of “field trips” into poverty. I mean really, what does that do for the poor and disenfranchised? It might help the wealthy be better people, but the townships don’t really benefit do they?

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