Why South Africa should cancel Amazon’s new HQ

Amazon’s expansion into South Africa would strengthen digital colonialism and hurt labour and Indigenous rights.

Small toy shopping cart is seen in front of displayed Amazon logo in this illustration, taken July 30, 2021.
Amazon aims to build new headquarters in Cape Town, South Africa [File: Reuteres/Dado Ruvic]

On January 19, Amazon faces a major court showdown over the construction of its new headquarters in Cape Town, South Africa. The Indigenous Khoi and San peoples, environmentalists and other activists are asking the South African High Court to interdict the project, which sits on ancestral Indigenous land and will have a detrimental effect on the local environment.

If plans for the new headquarters go forward, the company will also further entrench its neocolonial dominance and exploitative economic model on the African continent. Despite lucrative promises of jobs and revenue from the government, Amazon’s expansion will not benefit the average South African and will bring more labour exploitation and likely enable more surveillance-based policing of poor and marginalised communities.

That is why it is crucial that South Africans resist this project.

Indigenous rights and environmental concerns

The planned Amazon headquarters are part of a $350m real estate project at a site known as the River Club, located on a floodplain at the confluence of the Black and Liesbeek Rivers near Cape Town.

This area is a historic site of the Indigenous people’s struggle against colonial powers. In the early 16th century, invading Portuguese forces were beaten back by the Khoi and San communities. Some 150 years later, the Indigenous people resisted Dutch settlers who launched their campaign of land dispossession from this same spot. Indigenous communities consider it sacred ancestral land and construction on it would be a major violation of their rights.

The site is currently being evaluated for National Heritage designation and part of it is within the borders of a precinct slated to be put on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Environmentalists also oppose the project, warning that it would severely damage the local environment. If allowed to proceed, the developers would raise most of the site above the natural ground and fill in the Liesbeek River, which compromises the potential for groundwater recharge when it rains. This could undermine the area’s capacity to absorb water from storms and floods – especially as climate change intensifies – putting local residents at risk.

Filling in the river also threatens biodiversity. As the “green lung of the city”, the site forms one of the city’s high sensitivity areas replete with endangered flora and fauna that must be protected. Furthermore, the project has been criticised for its significant carbon footprint which goes against any climate change policies South Africa should be pursuing.

That Amazon is involved in a project that is devastating to the environment is hardly surprising. The company has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, but its carbon footprint has increased every year since 2018. It has also kept contracts with fossil fuel companies and is among the top 10 maritime polluters thanks to overseas shipping.

The City of Cape Town’s own Environmental Management Department (EMD) has opposed authorisation, finding the project violates climate change resilience principles and biodiversity strategy. Seeing dollars and rand, the local authorities have pressed forward with the project, arguing that Amazon will create thousands of jobs and improve “global interconnectivity”. But would the project really economically benefit South Africans?

Amazon is not good for the economy

At the River Club site, Amazon is planning to build a new Amazon Web Services (AWS) centre, expanding its globally dominant cloud footprint further into the African continent.

AWS currently holds 32 percent of global market share. Entering a relatively underdeveloped market, backed by massive investment, would most likely make AWS the dominant service provider in South Africa and possibly the rest of the continent. This would preclude the emergence of a local cloud computing industry, especially one that cares for the privacy and digital rights of its users and is based on open-source software.

If Amazon also opens an e-commerce centre at the River Club, it may use its deep pockets to overtake homegrown e-commerce players like Takealot and Superbalist. The company is known to squeeze sellers who use its marketplace services, taking a significant cut of their profits, and favour its own products on its platform, undermining fair competition.

Extending Amazon’s cloud and retail services to South Africa would be an act of digital colonialism. If the company undercuts local competitors, its monopoly power would increase and wealth would be siphoned out of the country.

If Amazon sets up e-commerce warehouses in South Africa, it would be bad news for labour rights in the country. It has already been widely reported how employees and contractors working at Amazon warehouses and as couriers endure the hyper-scrutiny of human and automated surveillance in return for low pay.

They are tracked by machines and AI-powered cameras to make sure they are meeting their quotas. In warehouses, they must retrieve an item and scan it for processing every nine seconds, for shifts as long as 10 and a half hours. Amazon workers have likened their conditions to prisons.

It is highly unlikely that the company would not deploy the same tactics in its South African facilities and not exploit local economic hardship to pay workers even less than their peers in the West. And as it has done elsewhere, it would seek to break any effort for unionisation, with brutal labour practices and surveillance.

In a country, that has a long history of police brutality and of law enforcement being used to quash labour and civil unrest, Amazon would fit right in. The company is known for providing surveillance technology and cooperating with police departments in the US and there is no reason why it would not do the same in South Africa. In a July 2020 research interview, the City of Cape Town’s director of CCTV for the Metro Police, Barry Schuller, told me that Amazon had reached out to them to talk about the services it can offer.

For all these reasons, South Africans and their allies must resist the building of the Amazon headquarters. Legal action by Indigenous groups and activists is one major step in this direction.

The Observatory Civic Association and Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council have submitted an application to the High Court to review the decision-making process behind the approval for the development. As part of the process, they are seeking an urgent interdict to halt the River Club development, which will be heard before the court between January 19 and 21. Those leading the charge believe if the interdict fails, then it will be difficult to stop Amazon, as they will have laid down enough concrete for the courts to deem it not worthy to scrap the project.

A ruling in favour of those who stand against the project is quite possible, despite all the lobbying its supporters have undertaken. In December, activists successfully pressured a South African high court to block Dutch oil giant Shell from conducting seismic testing off of South Africa’s Wild Coast. The campaign drew comparisons to the colonisation of South Africa by European countries.

A victory against Amazon in South Africa would reverberate throughout the world. It would teach the corporation and its Big Tech peers a grand lesson: that organised resistance can shut them down. If activists kick Amazon out of Cape Town, it would be a major victory for Indigenous rights, environmental sustainability, and the fight against digital colonialism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.