Last week, the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoi Indigenous Traditional Council (GKKITC) and the Observatory Civic Association (OCA) sought an interdict against the construction of new facilities in Observatory, Cape Town. The centrepiece of development is the Amazon headquarters, without which the project will not go forward.
The site has been opposed on the grounds that it will destroy indigenous culture and a critical environmental floodplain. Yet we haven’t done enough to discuss Amazon’s presence in South Africa in the first place.
Amazon’s incursion into South Africa as an African headquarters is an act of digital colonialism, whereby wealthy foreign corporations colonise local markets in lucrative areas of the economy and impose technologies of violence and control on local populations.
The company is colonising a critical component of the digital economy — the cloud — and it exploits and spies on workers while aggressively opposing their attempts to unionise. Additionally, it supplies surveillance technologies to police and neighborhood communities, which can be used to reinforce racial segregation and target activists and the poor.
While thousands upon thousands of tech companies exist across the world, US Big Tech mega corporations dominate the critical components of the digital economy that society uses all day long: computer processors, operating systems, office productivity software, streaming, e-hailing, cloud computing and the like. Because these components are so ubiquitous, every time someone is using a computer, these corporations get a cut.
As a result, foreign corporations, led by the US (with China a distant second place), dominate a lucrative part of the high-tech economy — advanced technology — which everyone else is dependent upon. In the world of tech, the rich countries stay on top because they own and control the means of computation and intellectual property.
Cloud computing is a central component of the contemporary digital economy. Consumers and businesses constantly use these corporate data warehouses and their cloud software for internet services such as websites and apps, instead of hosting these services in-house or in a data warehouse owned by communities as a public utility.
Amazon is currently constructing at least two buildings to house its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing centres in South Africa. AWS currently holds 32% of global market share in cloud infrastructure, followed by Microsoft Azure at 21%. (Microsoft recently opened cloud centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town). Flush with cash, they are expanding their data centres into the Global South as a means to capture emerging markets and lock in global dominance.
Amazon uses this dominance to create cycles of dependency. For instance, computer programmers prioritise developing skills for AWS or Azure, spurred on by courses offered by Amazon and Microsoft, rather than alternative open source cloud computing software such as OpenStack. Since businesses primarily use these services, programmers here in South Africa can only be employed when specialising in US Big Tech software, instead of local or open source software.
Further, Amazon uses this dependency to get favourable treatment. In the Northern Cape, Amazon is first in line to receive renewable energy from a power plant, while people go without electricity. This is a consequence of Amazon cementing itself as more essential than people.
Amazon’s new AWS warehouses is a form of infrastructure-as-debt designed to lock Africans into the unequal global division of labour. Revenue and profits will accumulate to the foreign masters and lock in the global status quo.
There are signs that Amazon will expand its operations into commerce, surveillance, prisons, and education, exponentially growing its control to no end. Amazon uses technology to colonise.
Amazon has reserved more land at Observatory than it has allotted for the two AWS cloud centres, and experts believe it may use it as a base to develop its e-commerce services throughout South Africa. If it goes this route, the corporate behemoth might overtake homegrown e-commerce players like Takealot and Superbalist. Amazon 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.
But more than this, South Africans should be worried about how Amazon treats its employees throughout the world. The company uses high-tech cameras equipped with artificial intelligence to spy on delivery drivers. The AI can monitor whether drivers look away from the road, speed, or even yawn, and send a live feed of the recording to managers. Amazon also instals a “Mentor” app that monitors driving, phone use, and location to generate a score for bosses who evaluate worker performance.
Conditions have been so intense that delivery workers have had to pee in bottles.
In Amazon warehouses, workers are under constant surveillance by humans and surveillance technology to meet processing quotas. Workers are expected to retrieve and scan items every nine seconds across shifts as long as ten and a half hours. In a survey of Amazon workers, 74% of respondents said they were scared of taking a traditional bathroom break, for fear of missing targets. Some workers have likened working conditions at Amazon to being in prison.
Amazon has also been criticised by environmentalists for perpetuating ecologically destructive consumerism and facilitating the exploitation of oil and gas.
Faced with prison-like working conditions and growing resistance to environmental destruction, the company has used aggressive tactics to beat back union drives.
In 2020, VICE News obtained leaked documents showing that the company relies on Pinkerton operatives and to spy on warehouse workers and monitor labour unions, environmental activists, and other social movements.
Amazon may also use its new cloud centre to expand its police surveillance footprint to South Africa. In a July 2020 research interview, when asked about use of camera surveillance on the cloud, the City of Cape Town’s director of CCTV for the metro police, Barry Schuller, said Amazon contacted them to open a discussion. In the US, Amazon controversially supplies millions of Ring cameras to spy on the streets, and it partners with more than 2 000 police and fire departments, despite little evidence it prevents or solves crimes.
For centuries, white supremacist authorities and settler communities used surveillance to police workers and enforce racial segregation. Today, sophisticated forms of video surveillance can be used by police and communities themselves to reinforce racialised class inequalities and segregation.
South Africa — and the Global South in general — are threatened by the expansion of foreign tech corporations on local soil. Transnationals such as Amazon not only perpetuate the dominance of the Global North over the global economy, they use severe forms of repression directly at odds with the values and aspirations of the African people.
In December, activists successfully put pressure on the courts to block Shell from conducting seismic testing offshore from the Wild Coast. The campaign drew comparisons to the colonisation of South Africa by European countries.
It is time the same be done to Big Tech.
A victory against Amazon could help spark a broader global movement against Big Tech and digital colonialism. If the interdict is granted, Amazon will probably abandon the project. If it is blocked, resistance will continue.
It is paramount that Amazon is stopped dead in its tracks, and a broader movement created to resist digital colonialism.
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