For the Khoi and San—the first residents of South Africa—the verdant land of Cape Town symbolizes victory and tragedy.
In 1510, the two communities drove the Portuguese soldiers who were robbing cattle back there. However, a century and a half later, Dutch settlers launched a land acquisition campaign here.
Today is another conflict scene. This time it is about a development project that will begin construction this month and will eventually build a new 70,000 square meter African headquarters for the US retail giant Amazon.
“This is where the land was stolen for the first time,” said Tarik Jenkins of the Gorinhiko Nahona Committee, a Khoi traditional group that opposed the project. “We want a world heritage. We don’t want 150,000 tons of concrete.”
The 37-acre riverside area was formerly home to golf driving ranges and popular bars, and the small blue plaque is the only sign of its historical significance.
It is now designated for 4 billion rand ($284 million) mixed-use development projects, including hotels, retail offices, and residential units.
Amazon has hired thousands of employees in global call centers and data centers in Cape Town. It is listed as a major tenant, and the city boss or developer has not yet revealed other big names.
Although some groups welcomed the prospect of the new job, the entire project, rather than Amazon’s specific plan, was strongly opposed by other community leaders, environmentalists and activists. They held a demonstration at the scene and now threaten to take the matter to court.
According to the Observatory Citizens Association, which represents nearby residential communities, nearly 50,000 objections to the development have been submitted to city and provincial authorities to date.
Critics want to stop development and declare the area a provincial or national heritage; environmentalists say protection is important because it is an ecologically sensitive area where two rivers meet.
Amazon in South Africa and the United States declined to comment on the dispute and forwarded the inquiry to the developer Zenprop of South Africa. It forwards the query to the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLTP), which was set up for the development of this particular project.
LLTP’s Jody Aufrichtig said: “There is no unpleasant trend,” he emphasized that the development project has gone through an extensive public approval process.
“The few remaining opponents have a fair chance to participate, but they don’t like the result.”
Balancing work and legacy
The land, its history, and its ownership are a worrying issue in South Africa. Nearly three years after apartheid ended, the memory of forced migration and segregation is still fresh.
Cape Town Mayor Dan Prato said in a statement that this sensitivity was taken into account when considering the project and announced that he approved the development.
“We are keenly aware of the need to balance investment and job creation, as well as inheritance and planning considerations,” he said, adding that this development is a much-needed impetus for Cape Town’s tourism-dependent and severely affected economy.
LLTP stated that the project will create thousands of new jobs while also paying tribute to Khoi and San culture and history.
The design includes an indigenous garden and a heritage center, where Aufrichtig of LLTP said Khoi and San’s descendants will serve as operators and educators.
These efforts succeeded in winning some Khoi and San, including a group calling itself the First Nations Collective, which directly approached the developers.
“We chose cultural institutions rather than the evil of government deadlock to achieve the goal of creating a liberated area for our people,” said Zenzile Khoisan, spokesperson for the Aboriginal Collective.
After a two-year temporary heritage protection order expired last year, Mayor Plato gave the green light to the project in April, which allowed time to review objections to the project. Aufrichtig stated that development is now scheduled to start in mid-June.
But opponents, such as Martinus Fredericks, the top head of the Nama Heritage Committee, say they are not ready to give up. They still hope to pass the court to compulsory review or block planning permission.
“We will approach the court,” Fredericks said. “We will mobilize every Khoi and San in the country to stop this development.”