Amazon’s new headquarters sparks row among indigenous South Africans

CAPE TOWN – On a strip of grassy land with clear views of Cape Town’s scenic Table Mountain, a team of yellow tractors cleared the land for a new $300 million commercial and residential development that has sparked debate in South Africa. South not only for its location, but also for its anchor tenant: tech giant Amazon.

The 37-acre site, at the confluence of two rivers, is widely believed to be in the area where indigenous South Africans first fought colonial invaders, and some indigenous leaders view the development as a desecration of sacred land .

“A concrete block for an Amazon headquarters on this land is egregious and obscene,” said Tauriq Jenkins, who leads about two dozen indigenous groups opposed to the development.

But not all Indigenous leaders are on the same page. When Chief Zenzile Khoisan looks at construction, he sees a victory for his people: the developer has agreed to build, within sight of Amazon’s offices, a heritage center telling the story of what some call First Nations peoples. nations of the country.

Big business has “fucked the First Nations,” Mr. Khoisan said, his frail frame buffeted by the wind in the clearing. “So maybe Amazon will get some education.”

Leaders of South Africa’s indigenous groups are now locked in a fratricidal struggle over the future of a piece of land that sits in “one of the country’s most historically significant sites”, according to the terms of the heritage protection agency. sites in the Western Cape Province.

The battle, which is also playing out in court, has been marked by insults, accusations of selling out and further debates over who can claim authentic Indigenous heritage and speak for the community. South Africa’s indigenous communities have been decimated over the centuries by genocide and the racist policy of apartheid – so it’s often unclear who has the power to speak on behalf of indigenous peoples.

The development of the River Club, named after a golf club once on the site, has also caused a split in government. Some politicians have rallied behind the project – the city hailed Amazon’s choice of Cape Town as “a base of operations on the African continent” as an economic boon. But officials from local environment and heritage agencies have raised objections.

A Western Cape High Court judge is expected to rule soon on a petition filed by opponents, who argue construction should be halted because the development does not comply with heritage laws.

Critics also see a repeat of a familiar cycle: wealthy, and mostly white, interests get their way, while marginalized communities bicker among themselves. A provincial heritage court has criticized government leaders for using “the ‘divide and conquer’ policy”.

It is difficult to determine indigenous identity in South Africa. Tens of thousands of years ago, a people now known as the San evolved from prehistoric peoples, said Michael De Jongh, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of South Africa. . The Khoi settled in the country 2000 years ago. Then, around 800 years ago, black Africans from elsewhere on the continent migrated to South Africa.

Indigenous communities were dispersed for many years, so being indigenous in South Africa became a matter of identifying with the culture and practicing traditions, rather than proving one’s ancestry. In recent decades, a resurgence of global interest in indigenous peoples has contributed to the formation of myriad groups in South Africa claiming First Nations heritage. Parliament passed legislation in 2019 that will allow indigenous groups to apply for official recognition. Many people have claimed to be First Nations leaders.

Mr Khoisan, 60, who identifies himself as the head of the Gorinhaiqua Cultural Council, argued that Mr Jenkins was being used as a spokesman for the association of predominantly white, anti-development residents of Observatory, the suburb surrounding the site. He also said that Mr Jenkins was not actually indigenous, but from Zimbabwe, and that his allies were a small group of “suitors”.

“Many of them are run by chefs with IQs well below room temperature,” Khoisan said.

Mr Jenkins, 41, who identifies himself as the high commissioner of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, called Mr Khoisan’s description racist. He said he is South African and was sworn in as an indigenous leader, but was born in Zimbabwe because his parents were activists who lived there in exile. In turn, he accused Mr. Khoisan, a former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, of leading “a group of crony chiefs” who sow confusion about First Nations identity to help the developer.

Indigenous leaders and scholars generally agree that somewhere near the development, which is nestled between the Black and Liesbeek rivers, Khoi warriors repelled an attack by Portuguese explorer Francisco d’Almeida in 1510 during the first resistance to the colonialism in South Africa. . The first colonial land claim also occurred in this general area by Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck in the late 17th century.

In 1939, the state railway company completed construction of a whites-only sports club for its workers at what is now the development site. In recent years it has been a private golf course and driving range.

The owner, Liesbeek Leisure Property Trust, announced at the end of 2015 that it planned to build a development there. Mr Jenkins first voiced his concerns during a public meeting with the developer in early 2018.

“It’s the silence of a very powerful story that draws us to original sin,” Mr Jenkins said of development on lands where settlers attacked indigenous peoples.

In mid-2019, after provincial officials accused the developer of failing to properly consult with First Nations, Indigenous supporters of the development emerged publicly for the first time.

Mr. Khoisan and his allies formed a group called the First Nations Collective, which supported the development at public hearings and in newsletters.

They negotiated an agreement with the developer to build an Indigenous-operated First Nations heritage and media center, along with an amphitheater, medicinal garden and educational signage.

The developer said on its website that the collective represents “the vast majority of senior Khoi and San leaders” and that the development has the support of “concerned” First Nations people.

Patric Tariq Mellet, a leading expert on South Africa’s indigenous peoples, said in an email that while the leaders of the collective have strong credentials, neither side can claim to represent all Khoi or other indigenous communities. marginalized.

But Mr Mellet was skeptical of the developer’s commitment to honoring Indigenous heritage, calling it a “door-opening exercise” that could be abandoned.

Jody Aufrichtig, one of the developers, said he sought to work with indigenous people from the start of the project. As evidence, he provided an email from Ron Martin, a Khoi chief and heritage expert, from August 2016, in which Mr. Martin thanked Mr. Aufrichtig for engaging with First Nations peoples and offered to provide consultancy services for R22,700 (about $1,500). ).

Mr. Martin said in an interview that he never did the consulting work and that he received no payment from Mr. Aufrichtig.

“Any sort of inference that we as a collective or the Khoi people as a whole sold their souls to a development for eight pieces of silver is ridiculous,” he said. “We are here for a much, much bigger thing. This is to retain the heritage narrative of the Khoi and San people.

Amazon, which has three data centers in the Cape Town region, has been remarkably quiet as the controversy swirls, declining to comment on this or other outlets’ coverage.

Cape Town’s Department of Environmental Management has appealed the approval given by another agency, warning that the development carries “significant cumulative adverse environmental impacts and risks, in particular flooding”.

And the provincial agency, Heritage Western Cape, argued that the development would undermine the site’s value as a sacred place for indigenous people.

As the debate dragged on, the developer warned city officials “that it could lose Amazon as an interested partner in development,” said Cape Town City Council member Marian Nieuwoudt. (The developer’s rep denied this in an interview.)

In the end, the provincial minister for environmental affairs approved the project last February, arguing that the developers, who changed the design more than 250 times, had done enough to mitigate flood risk and improve heritage value. of the site. He also welcomed the development project to convert the private golf club into a mainly public parkland. The then Mayor of Cape Town approved the project last April.

James Vos, a member of the city council overseeing economic development, said of Amazon: “For them to establish their headquarters here in Cape Town, it means the world.”

But getting to this point has tarnished the long-running fight for indigenous recognition, said Cecil le Fleur, chairman of the Khoi and San National Council, which the government formed more than 20 years ago to represent indigenous interests. . He said he took no position on the development.

“I don’t feel happy when I see how our people are increasingly divided,” he said.

Lynsey Chutel contributed report.

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