A few weeks ago an NGO in Pretoria used a PR stunt to highlight the work they were doing in the homeless community of Johannesburg. Whist highlighting the very real, and all prevalent drug & alcohol abuse within the street-begging community of South Africa, their approach was condescending and generalised a complex issue.
Basically the message this tasteless and tacky PR stunt conveyed was, was “Don’t give people at the intersection money. Rather give it to the organisation & they’ll use it wisely & give it to those who are really in need. Give it to us!”
The old saying that all publicity is great publicity may well be true, but this campaign made sweeping generalisations about a complex problem affecting thousands of South African’s and attacked the integrity and honesty of a section of society not “tuned-in” to defend themselves.
Then things took a different turn.
The story quickly created quite a stir, it was designed to, and generated interest amongst a major Pretoria radio stations listeners, leading to the breakfast show of the station deciding to take the concept and “have a little fun”.
The breakfast show team came up with the “hilarious” idea to ask Ad Agencies to come up with “funny” signs and then got their well paid creative exec’s to stand on the street corners, in their Converse shoes and Skinny Jeans, “pretending” to beg whilst basking in the hilarity of the reaction to their carefully crafted signs.
With much back-slapping and on-air banter the two agencies that participated Ogilvy and Publicis Machine basked in their collective creative glory, yet no one bothered to use this media driven opportunity to assist the very people they had marginalised in the process.
Not a single message, nor NGO was included (besides their own in-house project not related to street begging). Not a single solution was offered to the problem. Just a bit of fun, poking fun at a section of society that was not tuned in to respond to this callous attack on their dignity.
I was shocked.
The problems I have with this is simple. With a problem this big and this obvious in our society, who are we to decide who deserves something more than someone else? How can we ignore the plight of a person in need, because they may have a drinking problem?
Why would you not want to help as many people as possible whenever possible?
Hell, after a rough day standing in the hot sun for over 12 hours I would also kill for a glass of wine, or zamalek!
So with the understanding that jobs in this country are scarce, that work is not a right & there is not enough employment in South Africa I decided to do some digging and see what I could find about the homeless and beggars of Johannesburg.
The honest truth is, as a well informed member of society, I had no idea how bad the problem was until l did a little research.
Stats SA recorded that the unemployment results for the first quarter of 2015, shows that out of the 53 million people living in South Africa… only 15,5 million are employed. Yes, there are older & younger people that don’t fit into the “working age” but is that definition not skewed when we have households run by 12 year olds & 81 year olds begging?
It has also been recorded that 23% of our population do not eat everyday… and that 53% of our population have to make the decision of eating lunch or getting to work, everyday.
Let that sink in for a moment.
A few of these, a minute overall percentage may end up in front of the windscreen of your BMW as you drive to work. These are the same people the publicity stunt wants you to ignore like wall-paper. These are the same people the publicity stunt stripped of dignity, integrity and honesty with one sweeping generalisation that they must surely all be criminals and drug-addicts.
Now ask yourself, what would you do, if you had no money, no work & mouths to feed.
“We are all one catastrophic event away from being in the same broken shoes as any person standing at an intersection.”
How could an organisation, that understands the power of the medium and the influence it holds over the audience it serves try to stop people from… well… helping other people.
Don’t get me wrong, everyone has the right to an opinion & freedom of expression but telling people to stop helping those in need feels a lot more like oppression than anything else.
“The real problem is that we have stopped noticing beggars… we’ve become numb to our surroundings & the poverty crisis right on our doorsteps.”
I decided to change one thing & rethink homelessness… so I took to the Jozi streets with a camera, some blank boards & the desire to undo the damage this organisation & radio station caused.
I did not buy the sweeping generalisation that every street corner captive was a con-artist and drunk, and instead spent time talking to them, listening to their stories, understanding their situations, and treating them as people, not statistics.
And this… was the answer…