When the Cape Argus embarked on #TheDignityProject, we were apprehensive about the impact it could have and whether the goal behind the project, to help the homeless of Cape Town regain some measure of dignity, would be achieved.
The idea was conceived when editor Gasant Abarder visited the Service Dining Rooms in November to address a group of homeless people and talk to them about his daily routine.
After spending a few minutes talking about the newspaper industry, the conversation turned to focusing on the stories of the homeless.
He returned with an idea; an idea that would flourish and eventually be called #TheDignityProject – a multimedia, multi-platform story-telling device.
Also read: What is #TheDignityProject?
The idea was never to glamourise homelessness, nor the struggles they face daily. Neither was it to point fingers at service providers or stakeholders for not doing enough for the homeless.
The idea was simply to give the homeless people of Cape Town a voice, to tell their stories the way they had never been told before.
Along the way, we enlisted the help of Danny Oosthuizen, who has not only written a daily column over the last three weeks, but will also start working for the Cape Argus as a columnist as from Tuesday.
The Dignity Project has shown the power media has to change mindsets, and carry a unique narrative that challenges not only the status quo, but also the manner in which Capetonians address our own inequalities and perception of the homeless.
Forgotten citizens. Without an address, they cannot vote. They have no say in who governs them. They have no representative because they have no democratic voice.
In Danny’s case, the Cape Argus invited him to work out of our offices in St George’s Mall, partially because it was more convenient for him to do so rather than walk from library to library trying to finish his column on time, but also for the editorial and production teams to challenge our own perceptions of the homeless.
One of the team members approached Abarder and said she might like to donate razor blades to Danny, but was unsure of how many to buy.
“There he is, sitting over there. Why don’t you ask him,” Abarder said.
From initially being a bit of a pariah, only speaking to a handful of us in the office, Danny soon became a regular feature of daily office life, to the point where if he wasn’t there, he’d be missed.
The response to Danny’s daily column has been phenomenal.
He’s received correspondence from as far afield as Canada, implying that this story, his stories, and the real lived experiences and realities, have touched the lives of strangers who may never have even come across the Cape Argus.
Danny’s column has touched so many people in such a deep and personal way, that people began dropping off donations to our offices. The Service Dining Rooms has also received many donations of previously-loved clothing.
Convenor of the Street People’s Forum, Greg Andrews, said in a letter to the editor: “It is not often that a major daily newspaper dedicates so much column and pixel space, as well as the time and resources of its journalists to any cause, let alone to one that seeks to make visible the people who are so often invisible in our community and city.
“As organisations at the coalface, we are often asked by well-meaning people what they can do to make a difference, and there are many avenues for people to make their time, money and resources available.
“However, what The Dignity Project so poignantly highlights, is that recognising and acknowledging each other’s humanity is the fundamental basis for any relationship of care.”
Abarder said there was hesitation in the initial stages of the project, but the “important ingredient of common humanity” kept the project on track.
In order to achieve the Cape Argus’ goal of linking the people on the streets to opportunities for them to utilise their skills, Abarder roped in Danny as a more permanent fixture on the newspaper.
“We’re about giving people hand-ups rather than hand-outs,” Abarder said. “My office has turned into a bit of an advice office or complaints bureau for the homeless. They’ve come to seek help or tell us their stories about injustices. We’ve broken down walls and there is a mutual trust – all because we listened. To the public, I urge you to continue the engagement.
“In the process, we have created a bit of publishing history by creating a collaborative platform where the homeless can tell their own stories.”
As a result, Danny and many others have new clothing as winter begins lashing the Cape. Danny even attended the Mariah Carey concert this week. Touched by his story, a woman donated a ticket for him to attend.
Benjamin Nkala, who makes instruments from off-cuts of teak and pallet boxes, had offers to assist him with business planning and proposals, workshop space and a place to live, and one of the Cape Argus’ advertising clients is looking at ways they, too, can assist him.
The project, by all accounts, has been a resounding success, considering the amount of mainstream and social media attention it has garnered. If the Cape Argus has managed to change just one person’s perspective of the homeless in a bid to get Capetonians living together and treating each other with dignity and respect, then the goal of #TheDignityProject has been achieved.
Working on this project has been a truly humbling experience, from meeting Mr Kuan who has travelled the world on fishing trawlers to hanging out in Stroompie with the warm residents, and attending Pastor Ricky Marais’s uplifting workshops.