Campaigners in the South African city of Cape Town are trying to halt the building of the African headquarters for Amazon. It’s a battle that pits cultural concerns against economic interests, as the BBC’s Vumani Mkhize writes.
It is an overcast day in Cape Town and the scenic Table Mountain is shrouded in a ghostly cloud that silently cascades down the rocky green slopes.
At the foot of this historic landscape, a small group of activists from the Khoi and San communities have gathered near the entrance of a huge building site known as the River Club.
The communities are seen as some of the earliest inhabitants of southern Africa.
Dressed in traditional animal skins, the activists burn sage and call upon their ancestors for cleansing and protection.
They chant in an ancient language as the sage smoke fills the air.
The elaborate ritual is a cleansing ceremony on disputed land.
Across the road from where the activists have gathered, construction is already under way. They can barely look as the lorries full of dirt come in and out in steady procession, while the bulldozers and excavators carve away the land.
The first phase of the nearly $300m (£215m) development, which will include the Amazon offices, is set to be completed in two years. However the Khoi and the San are determined to stop it.
Tauriq Jenkins, of the Goringhaicona Khoena Council, a Khoi traditional group, says the land has profound historical and cultural value to his people.
“This place for us is sacred because it’s on a confluence of Liesbeek and Black Rivers. These embankments are known as the birthplace of the Khoena [Khoi] people,” he tells the BBC.
It is also where the European colonisers had their first battle with South Africa’s indigenous people, which is marked with a blue plaque.
The 150,000 sqm development will include residential properties and shops as well as offices.
The Amazon site, which is seen as key to pulling in other companies, is set to take up nearly half the space, from where it will run its bourgeoning operations across Africa.
The retail giant directed questions to the developer of the project, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Jody Aufrichtig, who heads the project, says the development will provide a massive boost to Cape Town’s tourism-reliant economy, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
He said it would create 6,000 jobs during construction and about 13,000 indirect jobs.
“It’s so desperately needed, especially post-Covid and some of the riots and troubles we’ve had in South Africa.
“It will give the people of Cape Town and South Africa hope and economic development.”
The tussle between the developer and the indigenous people of Cape Town comes amid the biggest unemployment crisis South Africa has ever faced.
Its unemployment rate of more than 34% is the worst among 82 countries monitored by the Bloomberg news agency.
Last year, the economy shrank by an unprecedented 7%, and though it has since rebounded, jobs remain in short supply.
It is in this context that economist Ivan Turok argues that the project must go ahead, adding that it will be seen as a vote of confidence in the country.
“It will help encourage other foreign investors into the country on the grounds that this place is stable, it’s got a good skills base and is a place for the future,” he says.
While the economic benefits of the project might be compelling, for the indigenous communities the issue is bigger than that.
The site of the development is where the first conflict between the indigenous people and the Dutch colonisers took place in 1659.
“This very place is where land was stolen for the first time in South Africa,” Mr Jenkins says.
The dispossession of Khoi and San land set in motion centuries of land seizures across the rest of the country. The issue of land ownership, or the lack of it, remains a thorny issue.
Twenty-seven years since the end of apartheid, which legalised racism, much of South Africa’s private land is still owned by the white minority.
Land redistribution has moved at a snail’s pace and inequality remains rife.
Mr Jenkins and members of the Khoi and San communities remain unmoved by the argument that the new development will bring much-needed jobs.
“The reason why this development is so expensive is because it’s on a floodplain.
“If Amazon and the developer could take its money and build the same scale development off this flood plain, you’d find the size of the development three to four times bigger, which means you’d be able to employ exponentially more people.”
But not all Khoi and San are opposed to the project.
A group called the First Nations Collective has thrown its weight behind the development.
To honour Khoi and San heritage, the developer plans to build a media centre, a heritage garden and an amphitheatre. Roads within the site will also be named after indigenous leaders.
This will create “a liberated zone from which we can engage deeper into the fight for recognition, restitution and restoration of South Africa’s first people,” First Nations Collective spokesperson Zenzile Khoisan told a local radio station.
The Western Cape provincial government is also a major backer of the project after giving it the green light in April 2021. And it is being supported by the city’s mayor.
In a statement, Mayor Dan Plato acknowledged that there were heritage issues to be considered.
But he added that it was “clear that this development offers many economic, social and environmental benefits for the area”.
For Mr Jenkins and his group who oppose the project, the fight is not over.
He argues that Amazon would not develop a historical site in the US, such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. “So why would they do that in our context?” he asks.
He says his group have amassed over 50,000 signatures from community members who are against the development.
His Goringhaicona Khoena Council is also part of a legal case at Cape Town’s High Court aiming to review the city’s decision to approve the project. They have also filed papers to halt construction at the River Club site.
A court date has not yet been set, however both sides are prepared for a lengthy legal battle which could have a profound impact on the heritage and economy of Cape Town.
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