Spending Sunday in the worship of money

Electronic Mail&Guardian / August 17, 1998.

Is there a group of people more irritating, self-righteous and unnaturally enthusiastic than a bunch of sales folk trying to punt their wares? Well, imagine being trapped in a hall heaving with them.

Not a great way to spend a Sunday, but who can ignore the lure of money or, in my case, watching how worship of it can turn people into slaves, salivating at the thought of becoming mega-rich?

That is what Amway, the direct marketing group intent on global domination, promises to do for hard-working South Africans. It is the American Dream, and it has been spreading like a contagious disease since arriving here last August.

With a network comprising 26 countries, Amway claims to have created more dollar millionaires than any other company in history by selling detergents, toothpaste and other household products. Which is enough of an incentive to drag 2,000 aspirants out for a jamboree one Sunday afternoon.

Pop music is blaring out of the heavy-duty speakers in the Heritage Hall, on an industrial site near Germiston, where I join the multi-racial crowd gathered in worship of the money god. Two good-looking men bound onstage with slick haircuts and snappy grey designer suits creased so sharp they could cut paper. Microphones waving in their hands, the two jump up and down to the sound of a Rolling Stones hit. "We get excited because there's a lot of people making a lot of money," they cry.

Everyone cheers fanatically, clapping in tune to the music and flashing lights. Were this a real rock concert, Andrew and Craig would be the warm-up act. "If Amway is a crime, is there enough evidence in your home to convict you?" wails Andrew. A burst of laughter from the audience.

"Would you welcome an extra $10,000 a month in your income?" chirps Craig as the duo rally the crowd into a rousing welcome for guest speaker Gad Gabriel an Australian Amway millionaire. (Frankly, I resent standing up and applauding a salesman just because he made a lot of money and wants to brag about it.)

At age 36, Gabriel, a former dentist whose parents are Egyptian, strides on to the stage like a Sumo wrestler. "Do you want to be free?'' cries the tall man. "Yes, yes," chants the frenzied crowd as they stomp their feet and clap their hands. This is supposed to be a business building seminar, but it pulses more like a heavy-duty brainwashing session to me.

Gabriel, who flies all over the world to promote "the business", as everyone calls it, says he became involved with Amway because it was an easy way to make lots of money.

The greed engendered by his money worship is couched in language like "making a lifestyle change", "becoming a full-time parent" and (my personal favourite) "making a difference in other people's lives by helping them make money". (Give over, this is about lining one's own pocket. The Amway method only works if you get other people involved in the selling hype.)

"When I help them become financially independent, then I will be free," Gabriel preaches. (What a load of codswallop!)

In his dry, nasal twang he goes on to gloat about how he was able to retire several years ago. "Anyone here want to be free?" he bellows.

A sea of hands goes up, followed by people excitedly screaming: "Yeessss!"

"Tapes, Books, Function," he scribbles on an overhead projector. "To Be Free!" (Yeah, suckers, pay up thousands of rands in the hope that you can persuade others to join your chain.)

"It's a fair system not a pyramid," explains Gabriel in response to the criticism often levied against Amway in Britain and other European countries. "The guy who does the most work makes the most money."

The brainwashing is good. At one stage I too jump to my feet, clapping wildly to the rhythmic beat of Gloria Estefan singing about reaching higher and higher.

I mentally draw up a list of all the people I know (oooh, all that lovely money) and start to imagine myself spending the rest of my days travelling first class around the world, while some other sucker keeps "the business" going. It is a short-lived dream.

The second half of this three-and-a-half-hour meeting is spent on what they call the "recognition service", where local Amway folk parade on stage after having reached certain sales levels.

Diamond seems to be the coveted millionaire status, but there is a long road to travel to get level with Gabriel. My sponsors, Laurie and Vanessa, an aspiring couple who run their own business, are somewhere at the bottom on 6% and need me to join to keep them on the way up.

They parade on the stage alongside engineers, optometrists, students, teachers, housewives, domestic workers (money is a great leveller but the crowd is predominantly white) as if they have achieved some high spiritual growth.

Then on stage come Paul and Pauline, a middle-aged couple from Durban who are just one step away from becoming diamond. They are the main event a local example of what can be achieved.

Pauline, plump and blonde, addresses the crowd, spouting homilies about wives making a home that is peaceful for their men. Standing beside her, an emotional Paul, who divorced her six years ago then remarried her two years later, says Amway has taught him to care in one year the former sourpuss once fired 16 secretaries .

"I have become more patient and now have more time to spend with my family,'' he claims. (So now Amway even acts as a marriage guidance counsellor. I feel like retching at this soppy love story with the moral that money can buy happiness.)

Paul, who was already a successful businessman, is about to sell his shoe company for an estimated R3-million and devote himself to Amway full time. His dream is to have much, much more.

As Gabriel preaches: "You have to have a reason for doing this. You have to have a dream something to drive you. The second thing is that you have to have a list of everybody you know."

Although there are only some 30-odd items on sale here, in the United States you can buy clothes and even a Porsche through the network, which has an annual turnover of about $7-billion.

"It would take 300 years to spend this much money,'' says Gabriel to the now-rabid crowd.

Amway has been going for more than 40 years, and always had the stigma of pyramid-selling to contend with. Until about 10 years ago when a sales system, known as Network 21, was created by Amway disciples Jim and Nancy Dornan.

In the direct-selling world this toothy all-American couple have achieved godlike status. "We all emanate from Jim and Nancy," declares Gabriel.

Their six-step selling method, borrowed from door-to-door insurance sales people, is like the 10 commandments, and the myriad of motivational tapes they sell throughout the world is like the Old Testament (making them very rich indeed).

"It's dynamite," said Vanessa, one of those in my "stream" (the sales line I would join) who gave me the hard sell about following my dream hers is to retire in a few years (she's in her mid-30s) and sail around the world with her husband.

Me, I'm not ordering any travel-sickness tablets just yet. --

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