Defend Truth


The River Club development — when the letter of the law clashes with ecological wisdom


Cormac Cullinan is a director of Cullinan & Associates Inc. He is the author of “Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice”, and founder and director of the Wild Law Institute, which advances and defends the Rights of Nature.

The River Club development in Cape Town illustrates how developments that keep us on an unviable trajectory continue to be authorised. Even applying to court to review those decisions doesn’t solve the problem because courts will only intervene to stop unlawful decisions, not unwise ones.

 The Liesbeek Leisure Park Trust (LLPT) is continuing to construct the River Club development in Cape Town, which includes a regional headquarters for American tech giant, Amazon. This despite the Western Cape high court finding that doing so could cause irreparable harm to the cultural heritage of First Nations peoples, and granting an interim interdict prohibiting construction. 

This dispute is of great significance to all South Africans because it illustrates the dangers of dismissing perspectives that question the direction in which such developments are taking our society.

The dominant cultures in the world prioritise economic growth above all else. By-products include climate chaos, pervasive pollution, the degradation of ecosystems and the catastrophic decline in the numbers and diversity of other species. 

Scientists tell us that humanity has now exceeded important planetary boundaries. We are in the danger zone where there is a real risk of rapid, unstoppable changes occurring that will cause civilisations and human populations to collapse.

In short, the worldviews, aspirations and values of the dominant cultures are driving humanity along a trajectory that leads to disaster and we can’t change course without rapid cultural change.

Two things are key to changing course: first prioritise restoring ecological health and learning how to coexist in harmony within the community of life we call “Earth”; and second, reorient our decision-making and actions to reflect this priority. Nothing less will do. 

The River Club development illustrates how developments that keep us on an unviable trajectory continue to be authorised. It involves the construction of 18 large buildings near the confluence of the Liesbeeck and Black Rivers, filling in the natural course of the Liesbeeck and large parts of the floodplain and irreversibly transforming the landscape and sense of place of this riverine valley.

Projects like this get approved despite experts raising red flags (in this case Heritage Western Cape and the City of Cape Town’s environmental department) and huge public opposition because appeals go to politicians (the MEC and mayoral committee) who are always inclined to favour revenue generation. Even applying to court to review those decisions doesn’t solve the problem because courts will only intervene to stop unlawful decisions, not unwise ones.

The site is at the heart of the Two Rivers Urban Park (Trup), an open green area within built-up areas that provides a habitat for wild species and retains water during heavy rains, thereby reducing flooding risks (which are increasing as the climate changes).

It also has immense cultural significance to Khoi and San peoples. They consider the area around the confluence of the Black and Liesbeeck rivers to be a sacred place which is central to the story of who they are, and to the process of recuperating and keeping alive cultures smashed by colonialism. Their sense of identity and culture is bound up with place, and this place persists in the memories and cultures of San and Khoi peoples despite the fact that they were forcibly expelled from it many centuries ago. 

When any First Nations peoples who have lived in intimacy with a place over thousands of years fight to protect a place they consider sacred, it would be wise for the rest of us to listen carefully and learn from their perspectives. This is important to promote reconciliation and healing within our divided society. It also provides an opportunity to relearn perspectives and practices that foster an intimate connection between people and place based on relationships of deep respect, reciprocity and kinship. The kind of wisdom cultures need to be ecologically viable.

Unfortunately, the LLPT (supported by the City) has responded to this dispute by scapegoating the representatives of the Observatory Civic Association and First Nations groups who oppose them as being responsible for job losses and acting in bad faith. The LLPT maintains that the cultural significance of this place is “imagined” or exaggerated, and the site so degraded that there isn’t really much to protect.

Anyone who doubts the primary significance of this place to First Nations culture should read the expert affidavit and report of James Hallinan, a heritage consultant and assessment practitioner with more than 20 years of experience. He explains why this landscape, known to the early settlers as the Varschedrift (freshwater crossing), is so significant in the cultural history of Cape pastoralists/herders and San hunter-gatherers.

Hallinan describes how the Dutch coveted this land, set up watchtowers to keep the Khoi out, and in 1657 began awarding land in the Liesbeeck Valley to settlers. This led to the First Khoe-Dutch war which displaced Khoi peoples from this place. Jan van Riebeeck recorded that when some of the Khoi people were later asked why they wanted to come back and make peace “they had replied that the Cape was their birthplace and their own country with an abundance of fresh water, that their hearts continually hankered after it…”.

That heartfelt hankering persists and is apparent in the 17 affidavits filed with the Cape High Court from First Nations groups who oppose the development. They speak of this area as the source of their oral history and customary law, a place at which particular ceremonies should be performed which is important to transmitting their heritage to future generations.

To them, it is anathema to say that because this sacred place has been changed in the past it justifies completely transforming it today. This mega-development will furthermore foreclose the possibility of restorative justice through regenerating the ecology and heritage of the Trup area. It is also unnecessary because Amazon shortlisted five other appropriately zoned sites (including the Waterfront and Canal Walk) where its headquarters could more easily be built.

The litigation over the River Club is about whether or not the authorisation process was lawful, but Nature sets the bar for survival far higher. Unless we co-exist harmoniously within Nature instead of at its expense, all our descendants will pay a heavy price. 

Avoiding that requires decision-makers to listen to Indigenous ecological wisdom, to protect the sacred, and to prioritise restorative initiatives like the Two Rivers Urban Park over projects that take us towards a more dangerous future. DM


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  • Brandon VE says:

    The whole of Greenpoint was the site of a prisoner war camp in 1901 during the Anglo Boer war. There were camps that were deemed the world’s first ever ‘concentration camps’ where thousands died.
    This is cultural heritage too but you don’t see anyone harping on about it and wanting land to be preserved or a cut from the development.
    I can’t think of a single area that has been preserved for cultural heritage in South Africa. It’s a ridiculous concept.

  • Chris 123 says:

    How many peoples organizations are their, because as soon as a compensation opportunity pops up so do the lawyers.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    You’re doing this pro bono I assume?

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