Friday, April 19, 2013

Supermarkets, slavery and public schools

These two women who live in the heart of Venda, the north of south Africa, rely on growing food and trading what they don't have with other women. The rural economy is based on subsistence, with a bit of cash thrown in from the state if you have a birth certificate for yourself and grandchildren.
But supermarkets are building wherever they can and suddenly informal roadside stalls and the markets are abandoned. Women have to find cash and make the journey to a shop for much more now than just maize.
So when Tesco announced its drop in profits, I cheered because Tesco has been an aggressive contributor to globalisation and because I saw what that meant in a small part of the world last summer in south Africa. It is like watching an English market town lose its centre all over again, but this time the stakes are higher because the people being affected are poor, they have no cars.
So companies that have spread outside Europe and the US would do the world a favour if they stopped, stopped grabbing land to build on, stopped being driven by shareholders and listened to the rural poor.
Patience Agbabi read an important poem last night at the launch of Poetry Review, edited by Moniza Alvi and Esther Morgan. The Doll's House is a poem she was commissioned to write for the Ilkley festival about Harewood House stately home. The house and Agbabi's poem were built entirely out of the sugar trade that was the reason for slavery.
Her poem is relevant for many reasons, but it makes many links by using the voice of a sugar artist. Global exploitation didn't stop when slavery was abolished, it continued in another guise. People are not transported on ships anymore but they are beaten, robbed and chained because of the profits that drive retailers, major brands and middlemen to keep feeding the mantra: consume, consume, consume.
Even the world's economists don't believe it works anymore - they're all talking about collaborative consumerism - but the retailers will squeeze as much as they can out of the earth and us before the secret's out because there's still money to be had.
Indeed, globalisation is also responsible for the pittance paid to agricultural workers in Venda on fruit farms (bananas, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, avocado), the macademia plantations, and the disgusting conditions they are forced to live in.
It's also responsible for the current threat from mining in Venda which will drain all the water from underground. In fact, for so many threats that are already changing a way of life that was built on centuries of trial and error....
And who do we make rich as we participate? Well, slave money is still in circulation and is probably the reason why the men I sat next to on the train last night on my way back from the launch were at public school. Sprawled across four seats, their voices boomed through the carriage with that familiar tone of entitlement. I attempted to read the Standard, attempted to concentrate on HE Bates and failed. I closed my eyes and listened.
Between reminiscing about fagging for so-and-so they delivered insights such as: 'these international students think they can buy a place anywhere'....'oh but you used to be able to buy a place at Oxford'....'no, I didn't have to, I had squash'....'he wasn't particularly bright. They had him teaching English, but sport was his thing...'
They reminded me of the businessman I was interviewing recently who without irony said he tolerated his wife spending a thousand dollars on a handbag because the brand made her happy.
The buzz words doing the rounds of business - corporate responsibility, circular economy, collaborative consuming. Some retailers are suggesting people will stop buying stuff.
Supermarkets, let's hope, have seen their day. Can we have our markets back now? Get those lorries off the roads? Bakeries, local butchers - like they have in the places where the rich have second homes.