South African Family Relocation Challenges Racial and Regional Divides

By Leigha Wentz,
International News Writer 

Julian and Ena Hewitt, both 34, have raised questions over South Africa’s lingering racial and class-based tensions through their month-long relocation to Phomolong, a squatter camp situated six miles outside of Pretoria. According to a report made by The Guardian, Mamelodi Township, the area in which Phomolong is located, was created as a blacks-only area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. Despite the end of South Africa’s apartheid in 1994, the country still suffers from the effects of racial segregation. Black citizens make up the majority of South Africa’s poor, while 80 percent of the nation’s farm land continues to belong to members of the white minority.

Beginning on August 4 of this year, the Hewitt family left their gated community in Pretoria to live in Phomolong next to 50-year-old Leah Nkambule, their part-time housekeeper. The couple, along with their two children Julia, 4, and Jessica, 2, left behind most of their belongings, including the family cars, toys and other amenities, in exchange for a 100 square foot shack with no electricity and no running water.

As reported by the New York Times, the family allowed themselves a monthly budget of $300, most of which was taken up by the cost of Mr. Hewitt’s daily trek to his job in Johannesburg via an overcrowded, frequently-delayed train located 30 minutes away from the family’s shack. Life inside of the shack provided additional problems as the family struggled to keep warm, clean, and feed themselves during the harshest month of South Africa’s winter.

The couple admitted that many of their family members and friends were against their decision to bring their two young daughters with them to the camp.

“People might say it is irresponsible to bring children,” Mr. Hewitt stated. “But I would rather say it is irresponsible to raise children in this country who can’t cross boundaries.”

According to The Telegraph, Hewitt, who blogged about his family’s experiences in the camp, stated in a final post that he and his wife wanted to start a conversation in South Africa. As quoted by the New York Times, Mrs. Hewitt remarked that, as with many people in South Africa, the family was “living in a bubble.”

“We wanted to get outside the bubble,” she added.

However, while many are applauding the Hewitt’s attempts to cross the boundaries that exist in South Africa, others are outraged at the family’s experiment.

The Hewitts have faced harsh, often violent, criticism through social media outlets, including calls for the family to be “burned in their shack” by locals. Others worry that the family’s efforts were part of a publicity stunt and call the experiment exploitative.

Osiame Molefe, who is currently working on a book about race relations in South Africa, called the Hewitt’s experiment a “performance of the privilege of being relatively wealthy and white.”

Molefe also critically pointed out that, unlike the other inhabitants of the camp, the Hewitts had the ability to return to their comparatively-luxurious lifestyle at the end of the month, making the family unable to fully emphasize with South Africa’s poor. 

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 24 print edition.

Contact Leigha at
leigha.wentz@student.shu.edu

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