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.”
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