Indigenous land dispute dogs Amazon's Africa expansion

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 9 August 2021 11:05 GMT

Contested land earmarked for a development which includes a new Africa headquarters for U.S. retail giant Amazon is seen alongside the Black River in Cape Town, South Africa, June 2, 2021. Picture taken June 2, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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The near $300 million development, housing Amazon's new African HQ, is set to be built on historical South African indigenous land

DURBAN, Aug 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Over 500 years ago, South Africa's indigenous Khoi and San population fought off a Portuguese attack in one of the first, and most successful, anti-colonial battles in Africa.

Today, some descendants of the Khoi and San view U.S. retail giant Amazon's attempts to build an Africa headquarters on the same land in Cape Town in similar terms.

Rights groups last week filed an interdict at the Western Cape High Court to halt the $284 million development which would include a hotel, residential units and retail offices including Amazon's.

56,000 people have signed a petition opposing the building plans on land, previously home to a golf course and a bar, which community leaders say has archaeological value and should be made a heritage site.

Amazon directed questions to the body overseeing the development, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLTP), who said the project would create jobs, attract foreign investment and improve Cape Town's quality of life.

Why has this verdant stretch of land sparked such outrage? And are the developer's promises of jobs and a heritage media centre enough to dissuade those opposing it?

What does this land mean to the Khoi and San?

The area, at the confluence of two rivers, is the ancestral home to the earliest Khoi and San inhabitants in Southern Africa.

It carries cosmological, spiritual and environmental significance to these indigenous groups.

Following the victory against the Portuguese, the Khoi later battled against the Dutch in 1659.

After the Dutch prevailed, it is where colonial administrator Jan Van Riebeek launched a campaign of land dispossession, an event that researchers and activist say laid the bedrock for what would become apartheid white minority rule years later.

It is also where the Dutch East India Company, a colonial mega-corporation made up of Dutch trading companies in the 17th century, first brought in slaves to farm the land from countries including Malaysia, Madagascar and India.

"You can trace the origins of our identity here, it is the footprint of our resistance against colonialism," said Tauriq Jenkins, of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council (GKKITC), a Khoi group opposed to the project.

"This development shows a lack of sensitivity around our heritage," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Why is land such a hot topic in South Africa?

South Africa is considered one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank.

This deep inequality stretches back to 17th century colonialism and slavery, followed by 46 years of racially segregated, white minority rule from 1948 to 1994.

During apartheid rule, Black and mixed race communities were forcibly removed from certain areas to make way for white-only neighbourhoods.

Nearly three decades since the end of white minority rule, large swathes of private land is still under white ownership and redistribution efforts have often ended up in court, with thousands of land claims remaining unresolved.

What will the development entail?

Plans include turning the 15-hectare riverside area into a mixed-use development made up of offices, shops, a hotel, a gym, restaurants and conferencing space as well as affordable housing.

Amazon is set to become the development's main tenant, with plans to build a 70,000-square metre Africa headquarters.

LLTP have proposed honouring the Khoi and San history by constructing a heritage garden, a media centre, an ampitheatre and naming internal roads after indigenous leaders.

Are there other concerns with the development?

Yes. Community groups have voiced concerns around the environmental impacts of this development that will involve infilling a river and laying down 150,000 square metres of concrete on a floodplain.

There are concerns that the development will aggravate the aquifer's ability to store water in the face of future climatic shocks like flooding and drought.

The LLTP stated that a biodiversity assessment revealed the new development would improve the environment through rehabilitating the canal and establishing indigenous vegetation corridors.

They added that 8.4 hectares of land will be dedicated to green spaces for exercise pathways and wildlife rehabilitation.

Are any people in support of the development?

Yes. Local and provincial government, as well as another indigenous Khoi and San group called the First Nations Collective are backing the project on the grounds that it will bring jobs and pay tribute to indigenous history.

"We have secured a place to memorialise and celebrate our cultural agency and belonging, where we can articulate our own narrative in our own voice to the world," said Zenzile Khoisan, spokesperson for the Collective.

The LLTP said the project could bring 6000 direct and 19 000 indirect jobs in a time of soaring unemployment levels in South Africa.

The city said in a statement that the development is “set to result in a vibrant business and residential precinct that will unlock enormous investment and job creation potential.”

What happens next?

The case recently submitted to the High Court by the GKKITC and the Observatory Civic Association, which represents a nearby residential community, is set to be heard on August 16.

They are calling for the court to review government’s decision to approve the development, and to issue an interdict to halt any construction until the review is complete.

The Collective has said that they are also interested in pursuing legal action if needed.

"We are not against development,” said Jenkins from GKKITC. “ We are against inappropriate development... we want a world heritage site, not a Disney Land.”

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(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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