Dear Jeff Bezos, please don’t let Amazon destroy our ancient and sacred Liesbeek River land
It makes no sense that the man who wants to take humanity to Mars would choose to ignore the pleas of Cape Town’s indigenous people and allow the destructive development of their ancestral land — the place where the stars gather.
I don’t know very much about you other than that you like books, are very intelligent, very successful and, of course, very wealthy. I also know that you plan to take us to Mars. This means there was always a greater narrative behind your work — that you are someone who appreciates stories. So, I would like to tell you a story.
The story is as old as humanity itself, but for our purposes it begins in 1510, when the victorious Portuguese governor and viceroy Francisco de Almeida decided to land at the Cape of Good Hope. The reason was to supply his fleet on its journey from India back to Portugal. For reasons most likely due to indiscretions of crew members tasked with sourcing said supplies, a conflict arose in a local village, resulting in some of De Almeida’s men being chased out.
Feathers were apparently ruffled, retaliation was called for and subsequently granted, but did not play out as the Europeans expected.
Rather than a simple punitive raid involving the killing of some unfortunate and poorly protected locals in order to demonstrate Portugal’s authority, as De Almeida had successfully done in India, he was met by a small army of Khoi and San warriors. The outcome of what is now known as the Battle of Salt River was the death of De Almeida along with 87 of his compatriots, including 18 captains.
A story of rivers
And, in case you were wondering, yes, this is very much a story about rivers, which clearly have significance for both of us. In any case, this battle was the first military encounter between Europe and what is known today as South Africa, resulting in the Portuguese fleet returning to Portugal without their commander. De Almeida was buried on the shore not far from another burial ground on the banks of another river, which will soon take a central role in this story.
After the defeat of De Almeida, a European fleet did not tread these river banks for over a hundred years, until the Dutch East India Company returned and made it its foothold.
In 1657, the said company granted land to 14 Free Burghers on the banks of the Liesbeek River. This is the river that our story is really about, and the land granted was, unsurprisingly, not for the Dutch East India Company to grant in the first place. It was pastoral land shared and cared for by the tribes who grazed their cattle there.
But a legal precedent for expropriation without compensation was set, and what unfolded since has wounded the country of South Africa almost too deeply to be healed. I am sure you are somewhat familiar with the latter-day history of our nation, so I shall not go into that here.
Slave labour from the colonies
Unsurprisingly, a lasting conflict ensued between the Khoikhoi and the settlers. One of the consequences of this was that the Free Burghers could find no locals to work their farms. In order to solve this, the Dutch East India Company simply took humans from their other colonies and brought them as slaves to till the soil of the Liesbeek River bank, among many other chores.
One might argue that this was one of the first large-scale human trafficking operations, and intimately linked to your own country’s troubled past.
This led to a uniquely colourful population, as slaves from many regions intermingled with the local Khoi and San groups, Free Burghers and slave owners alike. Perhaps this is part of the diversity and engaging energy that is very much present on these river banks to this day.
In 1820, the first African observatory was built a mere stone’s throw from the river, which since has given our neighbourhood its name: Observatory. It is interesting to note that in the language of the Khoi, a resonant translation for this deeply sacred area below the foothills of Table Mountain is Igamirodi !khaes, which literally means “the place of the stars”.
During apartheid, Observatory was one of the few de facto “grey” suburbs where all races lived together. To this day, it is a magical space that has more artists per capita than any other ward in South Africa.
There is a deep magic in Observatory, old and powerful and difficult to wrap one’s modern mind around, but if you ever visit, you will feel it.
The Khoikhoi knew it, and we, their diverse descendants, know it. In fact, there is likely to be some Khoi blood running in your veins too, as humanity passed through here in the shadowy times we can only read in our DNA. In this sense, Observatory is the precinct of humanity, and you are part of it in the same way we are.
Sacred land stolen
And this brings us to the point of the story. That which is sacred and shared is again being stolen, being separated from the people who walked it for millennia. And more than stolen — the place where the stars gather, as well as the river that flows through it, the place where the bones of our ancestors lie, is being desecrated.
Our river, which is as sacred to us as I can only assume the Amazon is to you, is being destroyed by the greed of developers and the unscrupulousness of politicians, neither of whom have any interest in the common good or even in the truth.
The full story would most likely make your blood boil, but I know you are a busy man, so I will keep this as succinct as I can.
In 2015, a consortium of developers purchased the land from the national railway authority for R12-million. This is a minimal sum under any circumstances, well below the actual value of prime land spanning 14.8 acres, even without being slated for development. The consortium was quick to put a bond to Investec on the land to the tune of R100-million, thus publicly acknowledging that the purchase of the land was a “steal”, as you might say in America.
Soon thereafter, the city surprisingly rezoned the land, allowing it to be exploited for commercial use. It was almost as if the developers knew beforehand that some politicians and City officials could be relied on to ensure that the process happened smoothly, with nothing more than a charade of public oversight.
Even given that corruption among the political class is more the norm than the exception in our fledgling democracy, the predictability of this does little to erase the shamefulness of it.
The utter disdain for democracy and decency does not end here.
The City of Cape Town has what one might in polite circles call a “problematic” relationship with its powerful developer class. Just a few years ago, the Observatory Civic Association was taken over by a small group of developers who started giving each other special permits to build structures well beyond city ordinance. The cabal was ousted through a massive uprising of Observatory residents who kicked out the usurpers and managed to limit the damage to a few buildings.
This is only one of many analogous stories, part of a long, deplorable tradition containing such atrocities as the forced and inhumane expulsion of the entire thriving mixed community of District Six back when both you and I were young boys.
If you ever visit Cape Town, I ask that you visit the museum that bears the name of the district and tells the story through the voices of guides who grew up there as children, before they were packed onto trucks and dumped on barren land in tiny council houses shared by two or more families.
These are stories of displaced humanity that will bring tears to your eyes, as they did to mine. Stories that seem to be told again and again, designed to break up communities and drive people to the margins of their humanity. Such as this story I am telling you now.
Needless to say, we, the indigenous people, are opposed to this development, as are all of the local civic organisations abutting the area and all the local environmental organisations.
In fact, the City commissioned two studies, both of which concluded that the proposed development would devastate the sensitive wetlands and might very well drive the leopard toad, indigenous only to these wetlands, into extinction. This will come in addition to the sheer insanity of filling up a wetland with concrete and rerouting a river that is known to overflow on a regular basis.
The consortium of developers was quick to hire their own academic, who is no expert in intangible heritage, to provide them with their own report. The City was then equally quick to ignore their own experts and side with the report commissioned by the developers, in a bizarre turn of events.
A project such as this, estimated to cost several billion rands to complete, will have a suitably large budget to purchase what is needed to get approvals. Cape Town developers are as used to getting what they want as was Francisco de Almeida, prior to his demise on the banks of the Liesbeek.
Humanitarian and environmental concerns are merely annoying flies to be swatted aside, while ancestral land is ripped up and converted into money to line the pockets of those who do not need more, but whose appetites seem insatiable.
A fight for justice
Naturally, we fight them every step of the way — we fight their lawyers, who will bat for whichever team pays them — in the battleground of the courts.
This is sacred land and we are moving to have it declared a national heritage site by the South African Heritage Resources Agency. It is also part of a precinct proposed to Unesco as a world heritage site.
We are not looking for a fight.
We just want our ancestral land to be left for our descendants to enjoy, and for all who visit Cape Town in the future.
The developers care nothing for impending High Court action that will stop the development. They are moving ahead at full speed, seeking to lay down concrete and build well before the case is legally settled — perhaps in the belief that possession is indeed nine-tenths of the law.
But how could they possibly understand what this land means to us? They care nothing for the gathering of stars — only the acquiring of money and power.
We try to stop the machines and the destruction in peaceful ways, as reasoning clearly is not an option. Even if one does not care about heritage or about the environment — or even about the potential costs of flooding — building a massive office complex in this location is beyond foolish from a logistical perspective. As it is, traffic in the entire area is gridlocked mornings and afternoons. Getting in and out is a nightmare for most workers.
Adding tributary roads to this excruciatingly slow river of cars carrying people who will be needed to staff these offices will only exacerbate the current traffic jams bound to plague this particular complex.
A 20-minute drive to work is likely to turn into a 90-minute traffic jam, both coming and going. This logistical nightmare would doubtlessly be passed on to future tenants, while the developer would profit greatly. And yet Amazon was offered several other sites with far better commuting opportunities and much less environmental impact.
And this is where you come in, dear Jeff.
For you see, in line with the negative cloud surrounding this entire occupation, the anchor tenant — who is making this attack on our community possible — was not announced until the very last minute. Perhaps because the developers feared that word of the actual costs would reach your ears, and that there were several other far more suitable options for an African headquarters. Perhaps there is some other reason.
But word is now out, in the last innings of the game, and the word is Amazon.
This is a company that puts the Dutch East India Company to shame in sheer size and influence. It is an empire unto its own; one that crosses borders with ease, like no empire before it. It is also a company that purports to take its corporate social responsibilities seriously; a company built by a man who wants to take humanity to Mars — which surely means he thinks humanity is worth protecting and expanding.
It’s about more than that little red dot
But what about the origins of humanity?
Where our ancestors, yours and mine, on cloudless nights many millennia ago, sat by a river and looked up at the stars as they gathered. They most likely recognised Mars, a little red dot in the night sky that moved differently to the others. Had they known one of their descendants was on the cusp of visiting that distant place in the name of humanity, I think they would have celebrated it. Had they known that the river they lived by would one day be buried and its banks covered in concrete — in diametrical opposition to the wishes of their descendants — they would have been shocked.
Had they known that the same man — the man who might take us to the stars — could have saved their land for our common descendants many generations from now, with merely a word, but chose not to, they would have been perplexed.
Why care so much about a tiny red dot in the sky and so little about the living, breathing, sacred nature of the Liesbeek River? It would make no sense to them.
And it makes no sense to me, either. And I hope, now that you know a bit more about the facts behind the planned Amazon headquarters in Observatory, it makes no sense to you either.
So, please Jeff. Make the call. Select any of the other five shortlisted places where you could build your beachhead. A place close to willing workers that will get to spend three hours more with their families every day instead of in gridlock, a place that will not destroy our sensitive wetlands with its unique habitats, a place that will not destroy our sacred ancestral land.
Choosing any of the other places means you will be hailed as a hero and not as an adversary. Choose any of the other places that are not this place — this place where the stars gather.
It is not a hard choice to make. Even for a foolish man, the right choice is clear. And we both know you are not a foolish man. So please make that choice now, before the damage done is irreparable, and the stars will no longer have a place to gather. DM/MC
Tauriq Jenkins is the high commissioner of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Traditional Indigenous Council and chair of the A|XARRA Restorative Justice Forum, a researcher at the San and Khoi Unit at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, as well as an accredited South African Human Rights Commission Section 11 monitor and convener of the Anti-Repression Working Group of the C19 People’s Coalition. He is also involved with various civic and environmental bodies such as the Observatory Civic Association, the Two Rivers Urban Park Association and Oude Molen Eco Village.