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June 24, 2015

CEOSleepoutZA: Congrats on the money, not so much the idea

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ceosleepout-cuddles
Twitter/Vodacom
I know it makes me sound bitter and unappreciative of the funds raised and effort that went into planning the recent CEO Sleepout in South Africa, but I really struggle to understand the idea behind it.

Not only do the CEOs of major companies - who earn millions of rands a year - sleep outside in conditions nowhere near those that actual homeless people experience, they are sleeping out to raise money. To me this just seems a cyclical error. Those with money urge other people with money to give them their money to help a social cause.

I know that many civic organisations would never survive without the donations and assistance of major corporations and individuals alike, but the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Sleepout is ridiculous.

After the photos of the event were published, the hypocrisy of the matter just unnerved me. The whole thing reads like an allegory of privilege.

All the campaigning and advertising for the event dripped with the names of the sponsors. The event's website asks: 'Do you have what it takes to rise to the challenge?' Well, is the challenge sitting outside in the cold pretending to be a homeless person, or 'winning' the event as the biggest fundraiser? It was certainly not difficult to 'experience homelessness', especially not for the CEOs who took part n this event, so the challenge must have been making a name for oneself as the biggest fundraiser.

Then, there was a wonderful welcome event held at the Maslow Hotel - where the cheapest room is a mere R2,011 a night - just before the fundraising was to start. Although I am only making assumptions about the details, I can see how this event would have consisted of welcome drinks and hors d'oeuvres, while CEOs clutched hands in greeting and networked.

After this warm-up event, the CEOs were given sleeping bags by Virgin Atlantic and allocated their specially designed cardboard chairs that folded into beds within the cordoned-off and guarded section of Gwen Lane where they would 'sleep under the stars'. Because saying 'sleep in a cardboard box in the bitter cold with nothing but the clothes on your back' wouldn't sound quite so romantic.
ceosleepout2015-cardboard-chairs
Twitter/AkiAnastasiouTwitter/Lead_SA
The participants arrived prepared, of course, wearing the warm outfits they perhaps purchased for expensive trips to wintry Europe that, oh yes! no homeless person could ever dream of embarking upon.
Some CEOs 'braved' the cold in their entertainment kiosk, walking on the soft padding of what appeared to be a mini-golf course.
And heaven forbid they get bored! With PJ Powers and their trusty cellphones, they can still have fun!
And, at the end of the night, a reward: A hot beverage and a gift bag.
The irony of the matter was not lost on Twitter users, who commented on the hilarity of the rich and privileged in the country sleeping out to experience only an iota of what homeless people go through and inspire others to donate money so they can 'win' the event as its biggest fundraiser.
I humbly understand that this platform has raised the most for a single charity ever in South Africa's history but there is something wrong with a society that needs a privileged person to pretend to be unprivileged for one night to get donations rolling. To me the Sleepout was a mere parody of what it means to be homeless. The donors could just as well have sat in an auction room and tried to beat each other in terms of amounts. All of the ridiculousness of CEOs sitting around coal fires, in onesies and wearing the warmest clothing and lying in the comfiest sleeping bags and browsing the web on their expensive cellphones turned the evening into more of a marketing event than anything else; marketing for the CEOs who took part and their companies and for the major sponsors Sun International, Stuttafords Van Lines, Talk Radio 702, and Virgin Atlantic, and other brands whose logos appeared on the official stationery.

And right at the bottom of the rung, the fact that there are really homeless people out there was completely negated by the fact that these CEOs were given a fun time of it all. As Megan McLean of the North Eastern Tribune said, the aim of the event was not to be fun, but to change attitudes. And no amount of fun will change any number of attitudes.

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