Mixed feelings as business leaders sleep rough

On one of the coldest nights of winter, chief executives from more than 240 companies slept on the pavement. Their efforts were both lauded and criticised, but they raised funds for Girls and Boys Town South Africa and built a lot of empathy for the homeless.

CEO02a The CEO SleepOut was a fun night out for business leaders, even though they had to brave the cold Johannesburg weather. The event brought in more than R24-million for Girls & Boys Town South Africa. (Image: Shamin Chibba)


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Shamin Chibba

On a cold June evening in Johannesburg, The Commodores’ Nightshift blared from subwoofers over Gwen Lane in Sandton. “Gonna be a long night/It’s gonna be all right/On the nightshift.”

It was an appropriate song, since the entire street was packed with chief executives from over 240 companies. They were participating in the CEO SleepOut. They left their warm beds to sleep on the street, albeit in warm sleeping bags, for one night to learn what homeless people go through and, in the process, to raise funds for Girls and Boys Town South Africa.

The Johannesburg event ran on the same evening, 18 June, as SleepOuts in Auckland, Toronto, New York, London and Sydney.

Some of the more high-profile sleepers included Adrian Gore of Discovery, Rudolph Straeuli of Golden Lions Rugby, Zoiab Hoosen of Microsoft South Africa and adventurer Riaan Manser, who promised to sleep in nothing more than a Speedo.

The chief executives huddled around bonfires, sitting on chairs made from cardboard which they would later turn into beds. They listened to stories told by real homeless people, one of them being Philani Dladla, who is also known as Johannesburg’s Pavement Bookworm, and were able to Tweet the progress of their night.

Some of the participants ate before they hit the street; but once they were there, they were given only a small bowl of soup, prepared by top chef Reuben Riffel, and one bread roll for supper.

For these men and women, it was a very expensive sleepover, costing their companies R100 000 each. Organisers the CEO SleepOut Trust, aimed to raise R25-million, but fell short by R400 000. All of the money will go to Girls and Boys Town South Africa, an NGO that helps nurture troubled youths.

Image description Gwen Lane in Sandton was home to more than 240 business leaders for a single night. Many found the experience of sleeping out on the street on a cold night gruelling. (Image: Shamin Chibba)

SleepOut a gesture of solidarity

Ivor Chipkin, director of the Public Affairs Research Institute, says he participated to quell the cynicism he finds is pervasive in South African society. As an academic, he was the anomaly at the event.

“There’s also a lot of cynicism in South Africa and I think gestures of solidarity need to be embraced. And this is a gesture of solidarity by the wealthy and powerful with people who are less fortunate than them. There’s a sense that nothing matters anymore and I think these sorts of gestures are valuable.”

The chief executive of printing company Ren-form, Thomas du Sart, said he chose to participate after a lot of pressure to do so from his family. “It took about a week of nagging from my daughter and wife and eventually I gave in and said I would do it.”

Du Sart is a resident of Riverlea, a poverty-stricken township in southern Johannesburg, and said he understood the suffering the poor experienced. “Coming from a disadvantaged background myself I have been exposed to poverty on the streets I have an idea of how people suffer on the streets, so if I can do my bit then I will put up my hand for that.”

To the cynics who doubt the effectiveness of the SleepOut, Du Sart was straightforward. “The more the merrier. Why not come and join us and make it better for everybody?”

Some were uncertain as to how to perceive the event while others called it an extravagant camping trip and even condescending to the poor.

 

Not sure how I feel about the CEO sleep out. Seems like poverty porn. And the massive metro presence. I mean do the poor and homeless get this kind of support? Then it should be called camping.

Posted by Hamish Hoosen Pillay on Thursday, 18 June 2015

Housing a concern

Jerome Lottering, the acting chairperson for Camissa Movement for Equality, stood outside the blockaded street where the event took place to express his concern over poor housing, particularly in his community of Eldorado Park. His NGO intends on unifying the coloured, San, mixed race, Khoi, Griqua and Khoi San communities in South Africa and giving them a voice.

Although he supports the CEO SleepOut and of the work of Girls and Boys Town, he wanted to use the event to “show solidarity with those who are living in squatter camps”. “We want to highlight this issue because we tried to contact the Department of Human Settlements and the Gauteng premier [David Makhura] yet none of them are coming back to us.”

He said that it was the government’s constitutional obligation to provide housing to people who could not provide housing for themselves. “[The] government should come to the party and build houses. It seems to me that people don’t know what is going on in townships.”

Image description Jerome Lottering, left, the acting chairperson for Camissa Movement for Equality, used the CEO SleepOut as a platform to make the public aware of the homeless situation in his area of Eldorado Park. (Image: Shamin Chibba)

Aftermath

According to news reports after the event, some participants said they were overwhelmed by the experience and were humbled by it.

An unnamed participant told Eyewitness News he was humbled by the experience. “It grounds me when I have to experience what they experience every day.”

Richard Poplak wrote on the Daily Maverick that the participants did not have publicise their charity. “As for the homeless, what do they want? I dunno—go and ask them. My guess is that most have no clue that the 0.1% took a night off to play at being homeless for their cause. They might wonder why all these fancy people didn’t just hand over the money quietly, without fanfare, without cameras, without all the corporate flimflam?

“They might ask why these high priests found it necessary to perform empathy when empathy is a deeply personal engagement, a communion between souls that happens on the QT? They might remind these CEOs that when it comes to benevolence, there’s no need to tell the left hand what the right hand is doing?”