Cezne, Eric and Wethal, Ulrikke (2022). ‘Reading Mozambique’s Mega-Project Developmentalism Through the Workplace: Evidence from Chinese and Brazilian Investments’, African Affairs, 121(484): 343–370. [Open Access]

South-South cooperation is associated with fresh dynamics, new hopes, and an increase in policy and economic alternatives. It also offers interesting current developments for comparative research in business cultures and environments. Eric Cezne and Ulrikke Wethal chose to examine capital–labour encounters in Mozambique, comparing two mega-projects implemented by two mega corporations: the Maputo Ring Road, a mega-infrastructure venture in urban mobility, implemented by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) [from 2011], and the Moatize Coal Project, set around large-scale natural resource extraction, led by the Brazilian mining company Vale SA [from 2012]. The projects have a similar timeframes but they also exemplify the still dominant branches of Chinese (in infrastructure) and Brazilian (in extraction) investments.

In approaching this subject, the authors identify three analytical trends in the current literature: a focus on a 'commodity super-cycle', understood as a transnational, geopolitical development; a view on national economies and the (re-)positioning of domestic elites vis-à-vis investors and multinationals; and controversies of a special dimension inside countries or regions, where socio-economic struggles and livelihood shortcomings play out. Cezne and Wethal see these lenses of research as overlapping but rarely combined in current research. Their article may well be perceived as a contribution to 'cross-fertilization'. In search for an approach that makes this multi-focal power-lens available, the concept of the 'workplace' (and of 'workplace regimes') is introduced, 'a novel perspective turning attention to how South–South engagements play out on the ground’.  Cezne and Wethal refer to Michael Burawoy’s research on ‘the politics of production’, work that 'has been particularly influential in connecting the micro-politics of workplaces and specific labour relations with the macro-politics of national and global capital-labour relations'.

Approaching his cases in more detail, Cezne and Wethal follow Carlos Oya who developed a three-layered understanding for operationalizing workplace regimes analytically. He differentiates between (i) the organization of a particular workplace; (ii) industry and sector dynamics; and (iii) the national political economy.

After more than a decade of civil war (1977–1992) a foreign investment bonanza had produced its downside, ranging from dispossession practices and lack of local content formation to forms of elite capture as detriments to wider societal concerns. Cezne and Wethal present the decades after the Civil War as characterized by 'mega-project developmentalism', where Chinese and Brazilian business cultures shaped the 'workplace' in their respective ways. National power configurations (incl. regional disparities) add to this. On a local level, circumstances are not uniform. In the course of the mining project, most ‘local’ jobs, especially as qualification levels increase, were traced to Mozambicans from Maputo and the country’s comparatively more affluent Southern regions, with local Mozambicans from Tete performing primarily low-skilled, temporary tasks. Nevertheless there are differences in the way locals are hired. For the Ring Road Project, smaller groups of Mozambican workers in low-skilled positions operated under the supervision of higher-skilled Chinese workers. And there was also a brain drain: Mozambican workers with higher degrees of training and certificates tended to leave the project, as previous qualifications were not respected by the Chinese company. Perceptions of 'racism' were also uttered. Segregation marked the situation in the Chinese project with Chinese workers living in their own dormitories. Dispossession occurred in the Brazilian Vale SD project area when 500 local artisanal brick-makers lost their original livelihood sites due to Vale’s encroaching concession. Both mega-projects faced labour strikes. Both projects did little to establish sustainable work, education, or social infrastructure. Mega-projects, it seems, did not reduce youth unemployment in any sustainable way.

In combining these levels of analysis Cezne and Wethal suggest convincingly that this much-lauded dynamics of Mozambican developmentalism does little to change structures and the quality of the workplace in any sustainable way. Contrary to hopes, as associated with many with South-South investments in independent African countries, the structural conditions for an endemic youth unemployment are unchanged. Patterns that have long characterized Africa’s encounters with large-scale foreign investments seem to be replicated. Given that African countries are increasingly positioning resource extraction and infrastructure at the heart of national development plans, this is unlikely to change soon. And the worse is already on the doors: a lingering ‘jihadi’ insurgency in Mozambique’s gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado is, and Cezne and Wethal quote Joseph Hanlon approvingly, 'at least in part, the much more expensive outcome of not investing in local jobs and development’.

Applying the 'workplace' concept in their analysis of two mega-projects in Mozambique, Cezne and Wethal have used a novel approach to combine multiple levels of analysis, thereby contributing to a deeper understanding of the complexity of capital-labour encounters and their effects.


Martin Wolf