Jeff Bezos is neither an altruist nor a socialist, and Amazon’s River Club venture is not about job creation
Amazon, the Covid-19-engorged corporate behemoth from the US, is best known for the wealth of its owner and the poverty of its workers. It wants to turn the R4.6-billion mixed-use River Club development in Cape Town into its African headquarters. Everyone seems delighted – except for the neighbours (and the Khoi community for whom the land is sacred).
Making this everyday story different are the neighbours: they include a sufficient number of middle-class people with the commensurate self-confidence to dare to challenge this major undertaking. Their detractors accuse them of selfishness, of putting environmental considerations above the desperate need for jobs in a country blighted by unemployment. Cape Town has more than enough people desperate to do any work for almost nothing and under almost any conditions.
Is this a replay of divide and rule, of setting jobs against the environment as though the two are mutually exclusive? If so, who are the beneficiaries? Using the lure of jobs to sanitise “development” is hardly new. Nor is the paradoxical mix of idle capital and idle workers unique to South Africa. Getting out of this mess requires a better understanding of how we got into it in the first place.
This takes us back to Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos. His wealth is in the order of $214-billion, with daily earnings the equivalent of $321-million. Responding to political pressure and worker advocacy groups, Amazon recently increased the hourly pay of its warehouse workers to $15. Amazon’s attitude to trade unions is best captured by two BBC headlines: “Amazon defeats historic Alabama union effort” and “Amazon must let workers join unions without fear”. Not one of its worldwide warehouse workers is unionised. Bezos spends his money putting himself into space – $5.5-billion for a four-minute ride – or buying yachts at more than $500-million.
The City of Cape Town wants him because of the jobs and development he promises to bring. The DA’s Cape Town mayoral candidate promises to make the City “the easiest place to do business in Africa”.
Investment speculators are the beneficiaries of worldwide competition for their money. They are now often presented as altruists, if not outright socialists, because of their declared concerns about poverty and proclaimed eagerness to provide jobs for the unemployed. It’s not all that long ago that the opposite was the case, when capital was available but couldn’t be invested for want of workers. This is world history worth retelling. Briefly.
Welsh coal fired the world’s First Industrial Revolution in Britain. Mostly forgotten is that this would never have happened were it not for the large number of Welsh peasants who were ready to leave the land in order to dig deep into it for coal. When the digging didn’t kill them coal dust did, in large numbers. Their transformation into workers lessened their poverty and made the British coal owners the Jeff Bezoses of their time.
More than 150 years later, Welsh coal – like that in other parts of Britain – could no longer compete with cheaper imports. So, the miners and the communities built around the mines were abandoned. It is a tale common to mining throughout the world. Besides being the first, it further stands out as a reminder that being of the same colour and belonging to the same country did not protect the British miners from the exploitation usually attributed to colonialism and racism.
South Africa is directly involved in this story of “development” and industrial revolutions. Cheap South African coal helped bury the British coal mining industry in the 1980s. However, unlike the original British miners – the Welsh peasants – South Africa’s Africans were content with their land-based lives. Turning their young menfolk into miners meant leaving their homesteads to go to parts of South Africa that were as foreign to them as the moon. It took compulsion and bloodshed to tear them from the land. And this was before they went underground to be killed in large numbers by what are euphemistically called “accidents” and “occupational diseases”.
Those who survived were sent back to their “homelands” to die mainly early deaths, but always in poverty. But South Africa boomed. Given the current battle to stop the “development” of Cape Town’s River Club, it is fitting to remember that one of the main architects – and beneficiaries – of this forced creation of the African working class was a former prime minister of the Cape Colony, Cecil John Rhodes.
Modern-day South Africa, like 19th-century Britain, was built on or around mining. Enormous fortunes were made in both places. The poor are still in Britain but South Africa remains a special case. Unlike Britain, mining fundamentally shaped the political economy of South Africa, as well as its history and entire social fabric.
Mining is still very lucrative for its owners but is no longer the backbone of South Africa’s economy. Those who were so cruelly driven off the land have not returned to the land. They and their descendants have been urbanised to such an extent that South Africa’s rural population is now a minority group. The urban areas – especially the big cities – are resplendent with walled wealth while the majority live in various forms of poverty, ready to join the working poor.
It should therefore come as no surprise that those who would turn the River Club into Amazon’s African headquarters do so with jobs as bait. It should occasion no surprise when further told that those now among the 5,239 jobs promised during the construction phase are working for pay and conditions reflective of South Africa’s current unemployment rate of 43.2%. Life for most South Africans has always been cheap. Covid-19 and the continuation of self-imposed austerity economics designed to attract foreign investment has made those lives considerably cheaper. Just ask those currently constructing Amazon’s African HQ. Just ask Amazon’s workers what’s in store for them in Cape Town.
The neighbours and Khoi groups challenging Amazon, the Goliath posing as a concerned friend bringing urgent relief, are part of the Liesbeek Action Campaign. Further information can be obtained from their website. Best of all would be your active support.
Jeff Rudin in the DailyMaverick