/ 14 February 2022

Right of reply: A rejoinder to the Zenprop chief executive about Amazon’s HQ

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On February 3, 2022, an interested party, James Tannenberger, penned a response to our 26 January op-ed, Amazon’s colonial HQ in Cape Town must be stopped. His “response” omits critical information and fails to address any of the core substance of our article.

For starters, Tannenberger failed to disclose to Mail & Guardian readers that he is the chief executive of Zenprop, a major funder driving the River Club development. That is to say, Tannenberger stands to make money for himself if the project goes through.

Moreover, Tannenberger addresses his response to one of the authors, Michael Kwet, erasing from the picture the other author, Tshiamo Malatji, a Black South African, as if he doesn’t exist.

On matters of content, Tannenberger fairs no better. Bizarrely, he fails to address the entire content of our article: the many reasons to oppose Amazon’s expansion into South Africa and the African continent. Instead, he focuses on indigenous culture and environmental impact, which is not what our op-ed discussed.

Rather, we discussed the issue of digital colonialism, as well as Amazon’s abhorrent track record of exploiting workers, environmentally destructive practices and the littering of communities with surveillance technologies.

On the matter of digital colonialism, it is empirically well-established that the US dominates the global digital economy. The top five US transnational tech corporations, which include Amazon, are collectively worth more than $9-trillion — more than entire countries. The wealth these tech giants accumulate is concentrated into the hands of their millionaire and billionaire owners — the shareholders and executives. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is worth $190-billion himself.

In other words, Amazon’s expansion into South Africa disproportionately benefits rich foreign capitalists.

Alongside other critics of Big Tech’s role in the Global South, we label this “digital colonialism”, because the domination of core features of the digital economy, like cloud computing and e-commerce, reinforces globally uneven development. The rich countries own and control the most lucrative parts of the global economy — such as advanced technology and intellectual property — whereas the poor countries specialise in menial tasks: digging in the dirt for metal, assembling parts in sweatshops, call-centre labour, labelling images for artificial intelligence models, constructing buildings for the imperial masters and so on.

That Amazon is hiring temporary workers to build facilities that entrench long-term economic dependency does not help South Africa in the long run. Hiring white-collar workers, such as computer programmers, makes the situation no better: Amazon will absorb limited local talent and deepen dependency on its wide-reaching product lines.

Like generations of colonisers before him, Tannenberger calls this unequal exchange and division of labour “development and progress” — one that he benefits from personally, not unlike local elites who collaborated with European colonisers to secure a tiny slice of the bounty.

In addition to this general point, Tannenberger ignores specific problems with Amazon that we raised throughout the article.

Here’s a few of them:

  • As Amazon takes up e-commerce in South Africa, it 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. For this reason, it is a target of antitrust legislation across the world.
  • Amazon facilitates frivolous consumption in a time of growth-based ecological crisis. It facilitates the exploitation of oil and gas and is first in line to suck up renewable energy, while poor people go without energy;
  • Amazon surveils its warehouse and delivery workers to keep them working at an inhuman pace. Workers have called it prison-like and resorted to peeing in bottles to make quotas;
  • Amazon systematically attempts to undermine unions. The company relies on Pinkerton operatives to spy on warehouse workers and monitor labour unions, environmental activists and other social movements; and
  • Amazon supplies communities with products and services that drastically expand the amount of public camera surveillance — an attack on civil rights and liberties — despite no evidence that these cameras reduce rates of crime.

This was the actual substance of our article, drawn from the most respectable mainstream news outlets. Apparently, Tannenberger found nothing worth even commenting on, let alone defending. 

For some reason, Tannenberger’s “response” ignored everything we wrote. He falsely alleges that we made “false claims about the River Club redevelopment” that “repeats false inaccuracies that have been put forward” by two opponents of the project, Leslie London and Tauriq Jenkins. Tannenberger then argues against the points made by Jenkins and London with respect to the cultural and environmental impact of the project.

Tannenberger’s accusation against us is “false” in the most literal sense of the word: our article was exclusively about the wicked problems with Amazon’s colonial presence in South Africa. We noted in a single sentence, “The site has been opposed on the grounds that it will destroy indigenous culture and a critical environmental floodplain”, and did not mention those two topics again. 

His only other point is that Amazon will “create jobs”. There is no critical engagement with long-term ramifications of foreign dominance, how other jobs and South African companies will be affected, and the treatment of workers, among our many other points.

Tannenberger’s remark that “Kwet” is “opposed to any form of progress or development” is consistent with those who defend the idea that the East India Company brought “progress and development” to places like South Africa and India.

That foreign colonisers like Amazon are needed to develop the South African economy is a dangerous idea suited to the narrow interests of those, like Tannenberger, who benefit.