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I can’t use the ‘I didn’t know excuse’ for the second time

Date Released: Tue, 22 October 2013 11:00 +0200

Although the Hewitt’s experience Mamelodi for a Month has been written and talked about (and hit the front pages of newspapers around the world), I heard about it last week when Julian Hewitt came to Rhodes University to talk at the invitation of Prof Pedro Tabensky.

In case you need a bit of info: Hewitt is one of those people who calls himself a “social entrepreneur” and he and his wife Ena and their two children, four-year-old Julia and two-year-old Jessica, decamped to a corrugated iron shack costing R170 a month in Phomolong informal settlement in Mamelodi to spend a month living there on R3000 (the median SA household income). If you go to the New York Times article you’ll see the aerial photos showing just how close the Hewitt’s home in a gated community is to Phomolong and how dense by contrast the living is in the squatter settlement.

I knew what some of the reactions to this venture would be (for instance see this Thought Leader piece by Sibusiso Tshabalala) but I was drawn to his talk because I’ve had my own Mamelodi experience and I was interested to find out about his.

My experience of Mamelodi dates to 1985 when casspirs surrounded the township and you needed permission from the police to get in. Ds Nico Smith who had moved into the township and was living there legitimately on church land as the minister of a congregation deliberately set up the encounters to get white South Africans to come into townships and meet fellow South Africans and get to know them. Hundreds of us from all over South Africa descended on the township and were smuggled in via the back routes and housed with willing families who were as curious about us as we were about them.

I had many of these kinds of experiences during the last half of the 80s when freedom and democracy seemed very far away, but when various people in the churches were already thinking about how segregated South Africans were ever going to live with each other if they knew almost nothing of each other’s lives and ideas. Cedric Nunn, the photographer who is at Rhodes as a Senior Mellon Scholar, reminded me this week that the churches were playing a very particular role in that time when most organisations were either banned or paralysed by apartheid repression.

Those encounters and conversations had profound effects on me. As a young adult I made decisive choices about where to put my energies and convictions as a result of speaking to and hearing black South Africans on their home turf.

When I listen to Julian I get some of the impetus that drove them into the township. The smothering love of families that want to keep you and your children safe from harm; the dinner table conversations that blame, blame, blame (the poor if not the government); the endless talk of ‘entitlement’ and decay; the powerful sense that we are cocooned in a white world.

But it seems that the strongest reason was the simplest; Julian says if his two daughters are to make a home in South Africa in the future then they have to know, feel comfortable and connected to all South Africans. “To be a responsible parent, I don’t want my children disconnected from social realities,” he said.

But there’s another: Julian is a Christian and while he is not an evangelist, he asked the audience one simple question: “Do you think if Jesus came back today he would be living in a suburb or a township?” He seeks ways to “make my faith real” against the attitude of many whites that “I pay my taxes” and therefore have no further responsibility to do anything else.

He reminded me that gestures of solidarity, reaching across divides and extending oneself to find out and understand were important features of the churches’ activities in the late 80s and how we arrested that process and called a halt when the larger political events overtook us.

But he also had pointed comments to make: “The second transition is coming our way, the economic transition. As a white South African I cannot for the second time use the excuse ‘I did not know’. I must expose myself to the context.”

The result has been “a whole new lens” on life in South Africa for the majority of people, and Julian says “it’s a burden, it’s hard to integrate and translate this knowledge”.

When the Hewitts returned home, the day they arrived a tree in their garden was uprooted by a storm and fell over, clearing the view between their house and Phomolong. A giant township light fitting which worked intermittently while they were there, can now be seen shining brightly from their house. Julian takes it as a symbol of connection to their neighbours and community in Phomolong.

For the Rhodes audience he summed up the lessons he takes from the experience:

  1. Newsworthiness = national disconnect. The irony that a white family living for a short time the way the majority of South Africans live all the time being news is clear to him. The way this is reported, he says, shows a powerful disconnection from that reality. And of the role of the media in shaping public opinion, he says: “Oh my word, this was so not the kind of message I wanted to send out.”
  2. Transport costs are the highest costs and eat nearly half of everyone’s income in townships. This is a political problem that needs addressing. For Julian to get to his office from Phomolong cost R37 on the Gautrain and R45 by taxi. Taxis need to be subsidised. Transport costs are a massive disincentive to look for work which is far away.
  3. In response to the criticism levelled at this from of ‘slum tourism’: “the critic isn’t in the ring, the acid test is how we were received by the community we lived in”.
  4. South Africa needs new levels of leadership: open-minded and open-hearted, able to create empowering environments for resourceful communities.
  5. If we don’t create the conversations, the context will create them.
  6. Small things matter; the way you carry through your humanity.

By Prof Anthea Garman

Source: Media and Citizenship website 

Source:Media and Citizenship