Activists in the South African city of Cape Town are trying to stop the construction of Amazon’s African headquarters. It is a battle that pits cultural concerns against economic interests, as the BBC’s Vumani Mkhize writes.
It’s an overcast day in Cape Town and picturesque Table Mountain is shrouded in a ghostly cloud that silently rolls down the green rocky slopes.
At the foot of this historic landscape, a small group of activists from the Khoi and San communities gathered near the entrance to a huge construction site known as the River Club.
The communities are considered to be the original inhabitants of southern Africa.
Dressed in traditional animal skins, the activists burn sage and call on their ancestors for cleansing and protection.
They sing in an ancient language as sage smoke fills the air.
The elaborate ritual is a purification ceremony on a disputed land.
Across the street where the activists gathered, construction is already underway. They can barely watch the trucks full of dirt come in and out in a steady procession, as the bulldozers and excavators dig the dirt.
The first phase of the nearly $ 300m (£ 215m) development, which will include the Amazon offices, is expected to be completed in two years. However, the Khoi and San are determined to stop him.
Tauriq Jenkins of the Goringhaicona Khoena Council, a traditional Khoi group, says the land has deep historical and cultural value to its people.
“This place for us is sacred because it is at the confluence of the Liesbeek and the Black River. These docks are known as the birthplace of the Khoena. [Khoi] people, ”he told the BBC.
This is also where the European colonizers fought their first battle against the indigenous peoples of South Africa, which is marked with a blue plaque.
The 150,000 m² development will include housing and shops as well as offices.
Amazon’s site, which is seen as essential in attracting other businesses, is expected to occupy nearly half of the space, from where it will lead its booming operations across Africa.
The retail giant asked questions of the developer of the project, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Jody Aufrichtig, who heads the project, said the development would significantly boost the tourism-dependent economy of Cape Town, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
He said it would create 6,000 jobs during construction and around 13,000 indirect jobs.
“It is so desperately needed, especially after Covid and some of the riots and unrest we have had in South Africa.
“It will give the people of Cape Town and South Africa hope and economic development.”
The standoff between the developer and the natives of Cape Town comes amid the biggest unemployment crisis South Africa has ever seen.
Its unemployment rate of over 34% is the worst among 82 countries tracked by the Bloomberg news agency.
Last year, the economy contracted an unprecedented 7%, and although it has since rebounded, jobs remain scarce.
It is in this context that economist Ivan Turok argues that the project must move forward, adding that it will be seen as a vote of confidence in the country.
“This will help encourage other foreign investors in the country on the grounds that this place is stable, has a good skills base and is a place for the future,” he said.
While the economic benefits of the project may be compelling, for indigenous communities the problem is bigger than that.
The site of the development is where the first conflict between the indigenous peoples and the Dutch colonizers took place in 1659.
“This is precisely where land was first stolen in South Africa,” Jenkins said.
The dispossession of Khoi and San land sparked centuries of land seizures in the rest of the country. The question of land ownership, or the lack of it, remains a thorny issue.
Twenty-seven years after the end of apartheid, which legalized racism, much of South Africa’s private land still belongs to the white minority.
The redistribution of land has been carried out very slowly and inequalities remain omnipresent.
Mr Jenkins and members of the Khoi and San communities remain indifferent to the argument that the new development will bring much needed jobs.
“The reason this development is so expensive is that it sits in a floodplain.
“If Amazon and the developer could take their money and build the same development on the scale of this floodplain, you would find the size of the development three to four times the size, which means you would be able to employ exponentially more. of people. “
But not all Khoi and San are opposed to the project.
A group called the First Nations Collective has contributed with all its weight to development.
To honor the Khoi and San heritage, the developer plans to build a media center, a heritage garden and an amphitheater. The site’s roads will also be named after native chiefs.
This will create “a liberated zone from which we can engage more deeply in the struggle for the recognition, restitution and restoration of the first people of South Africa,” said the spokesperson for the First Nations Collective, Zenzile Khoisan, on a local radio station.
The Western Cape provincial government is also a major funder of the project after giving it the go-ahead in April 2021. And it is backed by the city’s mayor.
In a statement, Mayor Dan Plato acknowledged that there were heritage issues to consider.
But he added that it was “clear that this development offers many economic, social and environmental benefits for the region”.
For Mr. Jenkins and his group who oppose the project, the fight is not over.
He argues that Amazon would not develop a historic site in the United States, such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. “So why would they do this in our context? ” he asks.
He says his group has amassed more than 50,000 signatures from community members who are against development.
His counsel for Goringhaicona Khoena is also part of a court case in Cape Town’s High Court to review the city’s decision to approve the project. They also filed papers to stop construction on the River Club site.
A court date has yet to be set, but both sides are prepared for a lengthy legal battle that could have a profound impact on Cape Town’s heritage and economy.
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