Consumption, Capital and City Spaces: The Everyday Politics of Retail Workers in Johannesburg Shops and Streets

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 18:30
Oral Presentation
Bridget KENNY, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa
This paper examines the relationship of low wage, low skill service work which employs a majority of young, black women in Johannesburg to ‘consumption’ and capital investment in shops and malls. Employment in service jobs, such as retailing and catering have in general expanded over the past several decades, offering precarious wage work. This work contributes to structures of inequality as these workers find themselves ‘lucky’ to get one of these jobs. Through affective labour, service workers also constitute spaces and relations where a diverse group of people in South Africa meet to consume. They make possible the malls, shops and restaurants of consumer pleasure in Johannesburg. In doing so, service workers tie together a low wage labour regime with forms of economic distribution and new symbolic hierarchies of consumption in city spaces. Furthermore, service workers materialise forms of capital investment in retailing, property development and finance, itself explaining the vast growth in malls and Johannesburg Stock Exchange listed property portfolios. In turn, state regulation as well as local government economic development practice help to define directions taken. The paper traces these connections and explores multiple forms of retail worker ‘everyday politics’, from union strikes shutting down streets to networks of care and solidarity, which tie workers to other forms of sociality in the city. In short it examines the constitutive connections between labour, consumption and capital expansion in place. How gender and race explain such intensifying inequalities and their concomitant forms of struggle are crucial considerations.