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CityPress - - News - S’THEM­BILE CELE sthem­bile.cele@city­press.co.za

t was the dead of a win­ter’s night and there was the trade­mark mass of bod­ies hud­dled around a fire, card­board boxes strewn on the pave­ment and drinks clutched in freez­ing hands.

But that is where all sim­i­lar­i­ties to ev­ery­day street life ended on Thurs­day night.

While Johannesburg’s bona fide home­less use any­thing and ev­ery­thing they can scrounge to make a fire, the more than 200 of South Africa’s movers and shakers who were gath­ered in Gwen Lane, Sand­ton, for the 702 Sun In­ter­na­tional CEO Sleep­Out, hud­dled around wood and bri­quette fires in well-made iron grates.

While the card­board boxes used by the home­less are tatty, smelly and old, the card­board boxes that did dou­ble duty as both chairs and sleep­ing pal­lets for South Africa’s pow­er­ful were rigid, clean and brand new.

While the bot­tles, tins and cups the home­less clasp hold al­co­hol or glue to dis­tract them from the cold, the CEOs sipped lux­ury cof­fee from card­board cups with plas­tic lids.

The CEOs – par­tak­ing in a char­ity drive by Johannesburg ra­dio sta­tion 702 to raise money for the NGO Girls & Boys Town – also had sleep­ing bags, hats, scarves, gloves and soup by celebrity chef Reuben Rif­fel laid on by the or­gan­is­ers.

Smart­phones and por­ta­ble charg­ers, hot-wa­ter bot­tles, a mini putt-putt course, play­ing cards and games of Jenga were run of the mill.

Con­ver­sa­tions ranged from the swap­ping of sto­ries of their fam­i­lies to sug­ges­tions for joint fam­ily hol­i­days and pseudo com­plaints about the lack of al­co­hol.

The con­vivial at­mos­phere, to­gether with stalls hand­ing out com­pli­men­tary mer­chan­dise such as breath mints, sleep­ing masks, tooth­brushes and colour­ful um­brel­las, meant Gwen Lane re­sem­bled more of a street mar­ket than a typ­i­cal Johannesburg night scene.

Live per­for­mances by PJ Pow­ers and the Soweto Gospel Choir com­pleted the un­likely pic­ture.

The over-the-top repli­ca­tion of home­less­ness drew mixed re­ac­tions. Though the or­gan­is­ers, par­tic­i­pants and sup­port­ers ob­vi­ously de­fended the cam­paign, oth­ers dis­missed it as “poverty porn” and a stunt.

Euse­bius McKaiser tweeted: “It is sooooo cold, I wouldn’t mind soup from celeb chef Reuben Rif­fel right now. If only I was a CEO sleep­ing out.”

Andile Mngxi­tama, as­so­ciate of the Sankara Pol­icy and Po­lit­i­cal School, blasted the ini­tia­tive and said the “craze of poverty porn has been crit­i­cised in­ter­na­tion­ally”.

“Ini­tia­tives like these shield gov­ern­ment and the cor­po­rate sec­tor from tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for tack­ling poverty. It’s a scan­dal when CEOs have a one-night stand with poverty.

“This should start a dis­cus­sion around how do we cre­ate jobs, given the amount of wealth we have and the money earned by these CEOs.”

But for the movers and shakers who spent the night in Gwen Lane in Sand­ton on Thurs­day, the ex­pe­ri­ence was pow­er­ful.

Said one­sie-wear­ing CEO of The Cre­ative Coun­sel Ran Neu-Ner: “I hear the crit­ics ask what kind of ini­tia­tive this is and say that we are ro­man­ti­cis­ing poverty, but you show me another ini­tia­tive that has raised R25 mil­lion and that has got ev­ery sin­gle busi­ness leader from ev­ery sin­gle top or­gan­i­sa­tion in this coun­try to come to­gether and sleep on the street and do­nate money.

“I’ll take my hat off to them, but it hasn’t hap­pened. So yes, maybe we are ro­man­ti­cis­ing it, but how else do you stick out in the clut­ter? This has been an amaz­ing ini­tia­tive and I am very proud to have been in­volved.”

Gaut­eng Premier David Makhura agreed that while it did not come close to rep­re­sent­ing the dan­gers and prob­lems that con­fronted street chil­dren, the ini­tia­tive was still wor­thy and he would like to see other ini­tia­tives of this kind.

Bo­nang Mo­hale, chair­per­son and vice-pres­i­dent of Shell SA, opted to forgo ther­mal socks and a K-Way jacket, opt­ing in­stead for a long-sleeved shirt and the jacket worn by his com­pany’s 750 petrol at­ten­dants on cold nights. He said: “We know this is not real; it is highly con­trolled and sim­u­lated. I can tell you as an African who grew up in the town­ships that there is noth­ing ro­man­tic about poverty.

“But it is still a huge hon­our to be among peo­ple in the pri­vate sec­tor who are will­ing to go out of their way for a good cause.”

PHOTO: LUCKY NXUMALO

THE REAL DEAL The home­less lie sprawled along the streets of Johannesburg in freez­ing tem­per­a­tures in the dead of win­ter. SA is one of the most un­equal so­ci­eties in the world Brett Levy, Blue La­bel Tele­coms’ CEO, keeps warm by a fire

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