Julian and Eva Hewitt are a wealthy family living in suburban Pretoria in South Africa. They live in a gated community with their two adorable blonde little girls. The highly educated and traveled couple decided that their family needed “to have a direct experience into a daily South African existence” so they could “create a broader conversation of the role that empathy plays in underpinning a healthy democracy.” They decided to live next door to their housekeeper Leah in the Phomolong district of Mamelodi.
Phomolong is a slum.
The chasm between the haves and have-nots is rarely more pronounced than it is in South Africa. Even though blacks hold most positions in government, the minority of whites have much of the economic advantages. Millions of blacks in South African live in townships and informal settlements like Phomolong, areas of extreme poverty often lacking running water or electricity. Furthermore, the extreme racial divide that exists as the result of years of apartheid creates barriers to interacting in meaningful ways.
When they packed up their two toddlers they had hoped to experience what it would be like to live as an average black South African. They gave themselves a budget of R100 rand ($10 dollars) per day, which is slightly above the median income for the average black person. They packed supplies that would be within the budget of those that lived in the settlement and relied on public transportation to get around. The four of them moved into a 100-square foot shack, spruced up as a surprise to them by the landlord and Leah with a new coat of paint and patched up holes that had been made by rats.
They were living just like millions of black South Africans – but as white people.
Understandably, their intentions were questioned and were met with a great deal of criticism. They received vitriolic tweets wishing them harm, accusing them of using the plight of poor blacks as a means to further their own agenda. A black businessman in South Africa described their efforts to gain empathy via “an enactment of relative poverty” as nothing more than a way to avoid taking any real action. “It is way easier to imagine ourselves to be poor when we actually don’t have to confront this reality daily,” he wrote.
Julian and Eva wanted to change that.
By their own admission, their decision to pursue this experiment was more about awareness and “creating a conversation rather than creating action,” and by taking that position, it freed them of any responsibility of actually doing anything. Yet, their experience had a profound effect on them. They were moved by the sense of community they felt, something that they lack inside the walls of their gated community. Their home was no longer a mansion on a hill, but a reminder of how their privilege gave them access to luxuries like a warm bed, running water and electricity.
They also learned of the practical hardships of the poor. For example, they were shocked at how much of their budget (46%) went to transportation. In a detailed explanation on their blog, they showed how in many real situations for a family with children and considering the costs of other basic living needs, the expense of actually getting to work via often time consuming and unreliable transportation would wipe out the benefits of any income received. It was more economical for them not to work and receive assistance.
As Julian explains, “The problems with places like the Mamelodis of South Africa are too complex for any individual to influence. There are too many glass ceilings at play. Too many pieces of string to unravel.”
There is only so much one family can do.
A friend sent Julian an email after visiting them in the settlement. He wrote, “Perhaps by always focusing on social upliftment, we are maintaining our aloofness. In seeing how people relate to one another in the township, and how warmly we were received when we had nothing to offer, I realized that true poverty is relational rather than economic. Before we come with anything, we have to first come with nothing.”
Julian and Eva have returned to the comforts of their life. They maintain the friendships they made during their time in Mamelodi, even making the six mile trip to attend the church they became fond of during their stay. They’ve made friends with the new tenants of their former shack – musicians trying to get some studio time to make a demo. Their housekeeper, Leah, still travels from Phomolong to her job with them. Except now they give her money on top of her wages to cover the costs of her transportation.
By being aware, engaging those across the divide and making real change in their own behavior, Julian and Eva are proving that there is something one family can do.