Our Burning Planet OP-ED
Before the flood: What’s really going on at the River Club, and why it’s in the wrong place
While Cape Town competes for global investment, and sustainable development is needed to drive inclusive economic growth and social and spatial transformation, the controversial River Club mixed-use development is in the wrong place. Here’s why.
Jens Horber works as an urban planner in Cape Town and has a background in the industrial design and NGO sectors, where he has worked in the public art field and been involved in informal settlement and governance research. He has a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from UCT, as well as management and industrial design diplomas from the Wits Business School and the University of Johannesburg.
The controversy around the recently approved River Club development in Observatory, Cape Town has involved a dispute over whose version of the facts is to be believed. While objectors marched in protest and planned a court challenge, River Club staff were apparently retrenched with a week’s notice and initial site clearing may soon begin. An examination of publicly available information may help readers make up their own minds on this contentious matter.
The River Club development is located in a floodplain at the confluence of the Liesbeek and Black rivers. The floodplain plays a vital role handling stormwater from the large catchment of these two rivers (more than 254km2), which drain the Tygerberg Hills, the northwestern parts of the Cape Flats and some of the east-facing slopes of Table Mountain.
The River Club developer’s hydrological report states that by raising the majority of the site 6.4m above natural ground level, creating an artificial platform for the 150,000m2 development, any significant flooding of the surrounding area can be avoided. The development proposes a large number of measures to manage and reduce the effect of stormwater flows.
However, these are all necessary due to the conversion of a predominantly open space in a floodplain into a highly bulked and massed development that covers about 60% of the site. The balance of the site is planned for ecological and other green open areas (soft landscaping, dedicated ecological areas, eco corridor and buffer). In fact, only 13% of the site will be retained in a semi-natural state.
The hydrological report alludes to a number of contingencies, assumptions and uncertainties related to development on surrounding land (mainly the Prasa rail yard to the north). This, in conjunction with the uncertainties around the accuracy of hydrological modelling, given the broad scientific consensus on the difficulty of predicting the effects of climate change on flooding and therefore the effectiveness of current and future flood-mitigation measures, would suggest that the precautionary principle should apply when considering development in this floodplain. The report omits this warning.
In fact the City of Cape Town’s Environmental Management Department, in its appeal against the Environmental Authorisation granted by the provincial department of environmental affairs and development planning (DEA&DP), noted that “the decision does not give due consideration to climate change impacts and resilience, and fails to apply the precautionary principle”.
It is also very difficult to predict and for the City of Cape Town to control stormwater from all existing and future development in the large catchment area of the Liesbeek and Black rivers. Therefore to approve such a large development in a vital floodplain is a risk to city infrastructure and finances, surrounding properties, and to physical safety. This is the development’s fundamental flaw.
The developer intends to fill in the original natural course of the Liesbeek River, which according to the developer’s Biodiversity Impact Assessment provides a habitat to important bird species and may provide breeding areas to endangered Western leopard toads, and turn it into a stormwater swale, which is essentially a grassed, open stormwater ditch. This proposal was one of the grounds for the city’s Environmental Management Department appeal.
The appeal, supported by the city’s executive management, listed 12 grounds: among these that “the decision does not align with relevant national and provincial legislation, provincial and city policy and spatial plans, and the Environmental Management Framework approved by DEA&DP”. The department’s appeal highlighted procedural and due diligence issues on the part of DEA&DP, and noted that the decision did not adequately take into account the city’s previous comments on the environmental reports submitted by the developer.
The current course of the river is actually an artificial and partially concrete-lined channel built in the 1950s to divert the Liesbeek towards the Black River. The site borders the Raapenberg wetlands, and the city’s Environmental Management Department appeal noted:
“The Ecological Corridor referred to… is a misrepresentation of facts. Once the habitat of the Liesbeek River has been destroyed through infilling, there will be no movement of animals from there anymore. The paths across the River Club site they used to traverse, will be empty and unused. The need for the ecological corridor arises from the significance of the habitat of the Liesbeek River, and the need to maintain the ecological linkages across the River Club site, for frogs, otters and birds which move to and from the Liesbeek River and the Raapenberg wetlands, noted by various specialists and members of the public. With no life left in the Liesbeek River, the raison d’etre for the ecological corridor falls away.”
Heritage Western Cape, the provincial heritage authority, rejected the developer’s Heritage Impact Assessment, saying it failed to address legal requirements by not taking full cognisance of the impact of the development on indigenous/First Nations heritage, and also chose not to make meaningful reference to previous studies, such as the 2017 Two Rivers Urban Park Heritage Report, commissioned by the provincial department of transport and public works. This department noted in February 2020 that the consultant who submitted the developer’s Heritage Impact Assessment had a clear conflict of interest.
The site and the broader floodplain (known as the Two Rivers Urban Park) were important in the first resistance against colonialism, where the Gorinhaiqua Khoi fought and killed Portuguese Viceroy Francisco De Almeida in 1510 at the Battle of Gorinhaiqua, in response to a Portuguese cattle raid. This was the first act of anticolonial resistance, and the floodplain was also where the First Khoi-Dutch War (1659-1660) was sparked due to conflicts over access to traditional grazing areas, restricted through force by Dutch colonisers.
The main crossing point for indigenous herders and their cattle was close to the confluence. The land became a frontier of displacement, which was centuries later codified into law through apartheid. A First Nations Report commissioned by the provincial department of transport and public works in 2019 reveals the historic and continued significance of the Liesbeek and Black River confluence to the First Nation interviewees.
The River Club site is of national and international heritage significance and in December 2019 more than 20 civic organisations and various First Nation paramount chiefs and indigenous groups announced their combined application for the site’s provincial heritage status, while the national government has identified the area as part of the Khoisan Legacy Project and the National Liberation Heritage Route.
In fact, the property was provisionally declared a Provincial Heritage Site for two years by Heritage Western Cape in 2018. This decision was appealed by both provincial and city authorities, with the appeal dismissed in 2020 by an independent provincial tribunal which accused the provincial department of transport and public works and the city of “political posturing” in support of a private developer, rather than working with Heritage Western Cape as a fellow state institution”.
The tribunal noted that, “in its support of the developer’s appeal, the government departments did not serve the interests of their departments or the public interest” and that “their conduct warrants review and censure, where appropriate”.
After being united against the development, a schism arose among Khoi traditional houses in December 2019, with the formation of a First Nations Collective supporting the development. The developer claims the support of disputed indigenous Khoi leaders (who were initially not consulted, until the developer was ordered to do so by Heritage Western Cape), and runs what appears to be a carefully managed media campaign, responding in person to critical pieces in the media with at times ad hominem arguments.
The pro-developer First Nations Collective has allegedly been linked to an email attacking opponents of the development, including a globally respected UCT academic, who was subsequently defended by the university. Some media features are clear advertorials: in one, the (white) developer claims to speak on behalf of indigenous concerns and claims the development will “remove the cycle of invisibility that has clouded the First Nations heritage for many years”, despite Heritage Western Cape rejecting the developer’s Heritage Impact Assessment for not taking full cognisance of the impact of the development on indigenous heritage.
DEA&DP gave environmental authorisation for the development, despite Heritage Western Cape’s rejection of the Heritage Impact Assessment (a component of the legally required environmental assessment process), a move that may be unprecedented since the governing legislation was enacted in 1998. Reports make it clear that there is far from unanimous support from all Khoi leaders, and that an already fragmented Khoi identity, and questions of leadership legitimacy, are being leveraged to add a veneer of indigenous heritage legitimacy to the development.
The developer, with the support of certain Khoi leaders, intends to dedicate a small corner of the sprawling development to a “First Nations heritage centre, indigenous garden, heritage eco-trail and garden amphitheatre”, which were tellingly not included in the initial development design submitted when the environmental process began in 2016.
Not only is this an inauthentic and insignificant nod to the indigenous living heritage significance of the site, as noted by Heritage Western Cape, but this move, rooted in a colonial power structure and worldview, involves the Disney-fication of indigenous heritage. It fundamentally misunderstands non-Western memorialisation and ignores the First Nations cosmology and worldview.
In indigenous cultures the world over, the continuing living heritage and spiritual significance of a site or landscape lies precisely in its preservation in as natural a state as possible, and its continued use for spiritual and other cultural purposes (see also the 1994 Nara Charter on Authenticity, the 2003 Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the 2009 National Policy on South African Living Heritage).
The 2017 provincial department of transport and public works Heritage Report noted that the “partial remnant of a pristine and unbuilt landscape serves to reinforce notions of what the landscape represented to those who were excluded” and the area has “come to represent a landscape of memory for the First Nation”. While colonisers may have driven Khoi from this land, and parcelled it into private property to which access has been denied for centuries, descendants of these original inhabitants still acknowledge its natural, spiritual and cultural value, with indigenous ceremonies still being performed until recently around the broader floodplain.
Some development on the site is possible, but not at the sprawling scale that has been approved. From a heritage perspective, a more fitting use of the site would be as a truly publicly accessible indigenous heritage park, not a private golf course as it has been, or the privately owned, access-controlled and securitised open space that is planned as part of the dense approved development. Using natural vegetation, the site could be restored from its current neglected and landfilled state, and an indigenous living heritage and knowledge centre located on one of the small portions of the property out of the floodplain. Indigenous ceremonies could be practised freely anywhere on the site, not in the small, stage-managed space the developer proposes.
Social and economic benefits
While the application process began in 2016, the developer only revealed in 2020 that Amazon would be the main tenant. The developer claims significant social and economic benefits will result from the development, due to a large number of jobs created during (5,239) and after construction (860), and an element of affordable housing provided on the site. However, these and other claimed benefits should be interrogated, in light of concerns around the rigour of socioeconomic assessments, such as the one commissioned for this development.
Construction jobs are by their nature low paying and temporary. Granted, Amazon will locate a significant number of employees in the office space to be built, but most of these will be existing employees, as Amazon staff will be moved from their current City Bowl offices. While other office workers will be accommodated in the development, most employees in the office and retail components will most likely be lower-income workers. They will still spend up to 40% of their income on travelling long distances to the site.
The affordable housing to be provided is 20% of the 20% of the development’s floor area allocated to residential use, thus 4% of the total floor area. Raising the majority of the River Club site 5m above natural ground level to (supposedly) avoid heavy flooding, results in a high development cost. To maintain financial feasibility, this necessitates the bulky and tall buildings proposed, and reduces the amount of affordable housing provided, as well as its affordability. The development’s fundamental flaw of building in a floodplain means missed opportunities in terms of desperately needed affordable housing, cheaper retail and office space, and therefore more social and economic benefits than might have been possible if the development were to be located elsewhere, even in the local area.
The province’s own 2016 research confirms that there is a housing shortage of more than 400,000 units in Cape Town for those households earning below R12,801 per month. This research also indicates that there is an oversupply of residential accommodation in the income bracket above a monthly income of R12,801, which is the bottom end of the market that the River Club development is aiming for.
While the city supports this development in a floodplain, it has previously stated that one of the reasons it could not consider the Rondebosch Golf Club land for state-subsidised housing was due to its situation in a floodplain. The city supports the development because it gets a bridge over the river confluence and the connection of Berkley Road in Ndabeni to Malta Road in Salt River, as part of the development contributions paid by the developer. The road’s spatial role would be to promote public transportation and non-motorised transport, and should not be to structure new private development at the scale of the River Club development.
While the planning merits, as well as the environmental and hydrological impact of this bridge connection in combination with the existing downstream railway bridges, are also debatable, the city is ultimately sacrificing the vital floodplain role and heritage value of the River Club site (in a time of unpredictable climate change), for a bridge and increased rates income, despite the serious potential risk to city infrastructure and finances, surrounding properties, and to physical safety.
Right type of development, wrong place
While Cape Town competes for global investment, and sustainable development is needed to drive inclusive economic growth and social and spatial transformation, this mixed-use development is in the wrong place. There is significant underutilised publicly owned land east of the River Club in Ndabeni (an area with its own history of forced removals) and near Oude Molen that could be assembled and, via a land swap, used for the scale of development proposed for the River Club site. There are also tracts of well located and underutilised publicly owned land within 5km of the site.
The River Club development was approved by the city despite it deviating from three key city policies, namely the Table Bay District Plan (2012), the Floodplain and River Corridor Management Policy (2009), and the Management of Urban Stormwater Impacts Policy (2009), as well as not aligning with the city’s own spatial restructuring objectives at and along existing nodes and corridors such as the Voortrekker Road Corridor, as set out in the Municipal Spatial Development Framework (2018).
In his book A House Divided: Battle for the Mother City (2019), Crispian Olver, an academic and former director-general in the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, details a litany of politically motivated, dubious development approvals in Cape Town’s recent past. In chapter 9 he specifically mentions the drafting of the city’s Two Rivers Local Spatial Development Framework, which covers the area in which the River Club is located.
Olver writes that “the consultant initially hired by the City came under significant pressure — from both the City and provincial authorities”, and that there was pressure for the consultant “to amend their technical reports, which advised against the (River Club) project as it was conceived, on the grounds that it was located on a floodplain, which also happened to be of great historical significance”.
He continues: “When they refused, their contracts were not renewed and the plan was put on hold.” A new consulting company was then appointed and developed a revised draft local spatial development framework, which appears to post-rationalise and accommodate the River Club development within the Two Rivers Urban Park. There have also been concerns raised about the price and manner in which Transnet sold the River Club into private hands and then on to the current developer.
Environmental authorisation for the development was granted by DEA&DP on 20 August 2020. However, 40 appeals were lodged, including by the South African Astronomical Observatory, the city’s Environmental Management Department and Heritage Western Cape, the latter two on the grounds that the decision violated provisions of the National Heritage Resources Act and the National Environmental Management Act.
The provincial MEC for local government, environmental affairs and development planning dismissed the appeals on 22 February 2021. The city’s Municipal Planning Tribunal approved the developer’s rezoning application on 18 September 2020, despite the submission of 180 heritage and environmental objections, with the tribunal chairperson expressing enthusiastic support for the development. The tribunal’s approval was appealed, but these were also dismissed in April 2021.
This is clearly a contentious development, and in my view it exposes the fundamental flaws of our current approach to development — development at all costs, with politics, power and money more important than resilience, spatial transformation and a culture of respect. DM
The full EA documentation and DEAD&P decision are available at:
The full rezoning application documentation and Municipal Planning Tribunal decision is available at:
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