Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust claims “the majority of the Cape’s Khoi and San leaders and representatives” are in support of its R4.5-billion project to infill the land at the Liesbeek River and build luxury apartments, shopping centres and offices of up to 10 storeys, where tech monopoly Amazon will be the anchor tenant.
In fact, it is opposed more than substantially by a vast range of Khoi and San groups in the Western Cape, nationally and in southern Africa. The list includes the Goringhaicona, Kai Korana Transfrontier Land and Heritage, the Cochoqua Traditional Authority, the Khoi and San Kingdom Council of Southern Africa, the !Aman Traditional Council, the !KhoraIIgauIIaes Council, the IKhowese Nama Traditional Council, the National House of iXam San, Komani, Khwe Bushmen, IIXegwi iXam, Guriqua, Hawequa, !Xau-Sakwa, Sonqua, Karoo iXam, Kalahari iXam, !Xun, Ubiqua, the House of Klaas and the House of Dawid Stuurman.
The notion of “consent” peddled by the developer is clearly being misrepresented, if not outright violated.
They’re joined by revivalist umbrella organisations such as the First Indigenous Nation of Southern Africa, the Democratic Federation of Indigenous People SA, the A|Xarra Restorative Justice Forum and the Western Cape Khoisan Legislative Council. In addition, more than 56,000 people have signed a petition opposing the project and more than 60 organisations support the bestowal of heritage status on the site.
Now the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council and Observatory Civic Association have applied to the courts for an urgent interdict to halt construction so the sacred floodplain can be protected as a heritage precinct.
Old colonisers and new
The site currently being torn up by Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust bulldozers was, in 1510, where the Gorinhaiqua defeated the forces of Portuguese Viceroy Francisco D’Almeida. In the Dutch colonial era that followed, indigenous people were driven from their traditional grazing and watering place. The confluence of the Liesbeek and Black rivers, in the traditions of the original inhabitants and their descendants, has special spiritual significance.
It’s a bitter irony that the intended anchor tenant of The River Club project is retail monopolist Amazon, which has chosen the site of the first colonial displacements in the region for its new South African headquarters. Its brand of “disruption” has already hollowed out local retail and small-scale production around the world and moved billions of dollars out of national tax environments, making it the DutchEastIndia.com of our era.
All the colours
Not to present it as too monochrome an endeavour, the trust has given its project a green sheen, too: “The project will also restore the degraded site into a beautiful and biodiverse space.” But the city’s own heritage and environmental management department concluded that the development doesn’t meet the municipality’s policies on the environment (nor does it meet the standards of the competent authority for heritage in the Western Cape, Heritage Western Cape).
So much of the land will be infilled that it will leave only 13% in a semi-natural state, and prevent several sensitive species from traversing the terrain. Oh, and also, according to urban planner Jens Horber, “to approve such a large development in a vital floodplain is a risk to city infrastructure and finances, surrounding properties, and to physical safety”.
So there’s that.
It’s often up to marginalised indigenous groups to defend the land against powerful, moneyed interests, and the protection of heritage and the defence against environmental destruction are frequently bound together.
In Honduras, the Lenca people fought against the builders of the Agua Zarca hydrodam, which, had it been built, would have cut communities off from the supply of water, violating their right to sustainably manage and live off their land. The campaign has been successful so far, but it cost the life of activist Berta Cáceres, whose death was ordered by the head of the dam company.
In the US, Standing Rock Sioux activists and allies call themselves the “water protectors”. Their protest centres on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is planned to span 277km and carry 470,000 barrels of crude oil daily over land sacred to Sioux communities. Should the project proceed, the pipeline risks contaminating their water supply from the Missouri River.
It’s no coincidence that water is often at the centre of these conflicts. For indigenous communities, rivers are a source of sustenance and of spiritual importance. That Khoi and San groups can object to The River Club project “only” on environmental and heritage grounds, and not the loss of access to water for farming, is a result of colonialism. The ancestors of those who oppose the project were driven off the land centuries ago; today they’re being driven off by new, powerful global corporations, with the support of local government.
This city works for you — if you’re a developer
At nearly every turn the decisions by Cape Town’s city management seem driven entirely by property developers. How else to explain the shameful failure to build social housing within the metro centre, while selling off parcels of city-owned land to private developers at bargain prices? Or the intended sale of parts of the Philippi Horticultural Area, which supplies 80% of Cape Town’s vegetables and safeguards the Cape Flats Aquifer?
The city seems to be ignoring its own policies and pushing through developments that are anti-democratic, short-sighted and cause serious harm to our unique environment and heritage. And no amount of brownwashing or greenwashing can disguise it. DM/MC