POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 16, 2013
MAMELODI, South Africa » Regina Matshega was gossiping with a neighbor over a fence between their shacks in the Phomolong squatter camp last month when a very unexpected sight suddenly popped into view: two ruddy-cheeked white South Africans, a man and a woman, with two towheaded toddlers running at their heels.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," Matshega said. "What are white people doing here? They live in the rich places. They never come this side."
The white couple wandered over, past the gutter overflowing with raw sewage, to say hello. They introduced themselves as Julian and Ena Hewitt, a middle-class family that lives in a gated estate in Pretoria, just 6 miles away. They had moved into a 100-square-foot shack with no electricity or running water next to their part-time housekeeper, Leah Nkambule, to experience what life was like in an informal settlement.
"They said they wanted to see how we are living," Matshega said. "Can you imagine?"
The Hewitts moved into the shack for the month of August as an experiment in radical empathy. Could a white middle-class South African family make it on $10 a day in the kind of living conditions that millions of black South Africans endure every day?
"It is one thing to know from an academic perspective what divides us," said Julian Hewitt, who also blogged about the experience. "But what is it like to actually live it?"
In most countries, a family slumming it for a month would hardly be news, but in South Africa, where deep racial divides strike at the core of the nation's identity, the Hewitts' experiment made headlines and spurred heated debate.
They left behind in their comfortable suburban home everything but the barest necessities that people in squatter camps could afford. A few changes of clothes, a couple of pots, some blankets and thin mattresses were allowed. With no running water, tepid bucket baths replaced hot showers. Instead of flushing toilets, they shared a pit latrine with their neighbors. They also left behind their cars, taking local minibus taxis instead. Their children, Julia, 4, and Jessica, 2, even had to leave their toys behind. They were allowed one book to share.
"Like so many people in South Africa, we live in a bubble," said Ena Hewitt, a real estate agent. "We wanted to get outside that bubble."
But stepping outside the sharp lines that define South Africa, a nation that endured decades of repressive white minority rule that brutally enforced racial division, can be a tricky business on many levels, the Hewitts soon learned.
Some people, especially residents of Mamelodi, the township that includes the squatter camp, have applauded the Hewitts for putting aside the comforts of their own life to see how the other half - or in this case, much more than half - live.
"I think it's a wonderful thing," said Vusi Mahlasela, a prominent South African musician who also lives in Mamelodi. "We all need to understand each other better."
But their experiment also poked at some of South Africa's sorest spots. Were they white slum tourists who had come to gawk at black poverty? Was this simply a publicity stunt, aimed at getting a book or movie deal - or worse still, a reality TV show?
And even if their motives were noble, did they inadvertently confirm what many here suspect: Black poverty gets little notice until a white person experiences and highlights it?
Some critics took to Twitter with outright nasty, even violent responses.
"You know what? Hope the paraffin stove falls over and you people burn in that shack. Bye!" tweeted someone going by the handle Keratilwe.
Others were more measured in their critique.
"One would think that after 20 years of a democracy underpinned on the idea of diversity and inclusion, white South Africans would know what would be meaningful ways to engage black South Africans," said Sibusiso Tshabalala, a young black businessman who wrote an opinion article about the Hewitts in which he referred to their experiment in township living as "Survivor Mamelodi."
Busi Dlamini, executive director of Dignity International, a rights group, said that the Hewitts' motives were clearly noble, but that their experiment in township living was bound to be fraught given the history of South Africa.
"It is what I call poverty pornography," Dlamini said. "They put themselves at the center of the narrative that reinforces the centrality of whiteness in South Africa."
Osiame Molefe, a writer who is working on a book about race relations in South Africa, wrote in an email that "the Hewitts' empathy project is a performance of the privilege of being relatively wealthy and white." He added: "They have sought out, won and accepted sympathy and praise for living the hardships others experience daily without receiving the commensurate plaudits."
Indeed, few have wrestled with these questions as painfully as the Hewitts themselves.
"Ena and I laugh about this," Julian Hewitt said. "We just landed upon this massive social schism in South Africa."
Asked why his family decided to move to a shack rather than following the more traditional route of building a school or a playground in a township, he replied: "It's very simple. We're doing it for ourselves. We're doing it to change ourselves."
His parents had been horrified that he decided to bring their young granddaughters to live in a township. After all, the Hewitts lived in a gated community, the kind of place where the wealthy shield themselves from South Africa's violent crime epidemic.
But the couple insisted that their children should learn to cross South Africa's ever-present boundaries of race and class.
"People might say it is irresponsible to bring children," he said. "But I would rather say it is irresponsible to raise children in this country who can't cross boundaries."
Among the most immovable legacies of apartheid are the rigid geographic boundaries that separate the races. Far-flung, overcrowded townships like Mamelodi were the only urban places black people were permitted to live. Colored, or mixed race people, were restricted to their own areas, also on the periphery of cities. People of Asian descent were required to live in monoethnic suburbs as well. The nicest suburbs were for whites.
While well-to-do black people have moved into formerly white suburbs since apartheid ended in 1994, whites have generally not reciprocated. Indeed, even poor whites have their own slums, far from black people.
For all their irrepressible cheer, life in a shack was not easy for the Hewitts. August is the bitterest month of South Africa's winter, and keeping warm in an uninsulated, thin-walled structure was impossible. They all slept on a pile of mattresses on the floor, fully clothed in multiple layers. Even so, in the first week the entire family had the flu.
Keeping everyone clean without running water was a daily challenge. Ena Hewitt, who has a washing machine at home, tried scrubbing the children's clothes by hand, but she struggled with the task.
"I put the girls' clothes up on the line to dry, but my neighbors all laughed at me," she said. "They said, 'Those are still dirty!'"
At home, the Hewitts use a gas stove that heats quickly at the flick of a wrist. In Mamelodi, the family relied on the same kind of smelly, balky paraffin cookstove their neighbors used.
"A simple pasta that would take me 20 minutes at home took an hour and a half," she said.
But the biggest surprise was how expensive it was to move around. Commuting using the local transportation that most poor people rely on ate up almost half of the family's $300 budget for the month.
"It was really an eye-opener," Julian Hewitt said. "People need to realize that if they are paying minimum wage, a huge portion of that is going to transport."
But the Hewitts said they would miss many aspects of their time in the township, which ended Aug. 30.
"There is a real sense of community, where people rely on each other and take care of each other," Ena Hewitt said. "That is something that we don't have enough of back home."
The couple said they planned to keep up with the new friends they made. On a recent evening, Julian Hewitt made the six-mile drive from his hilltop house back to the squatter camp to go to a lively new church the family discovered while living there.