Activists Continue Fight Against Amazon’s Africa HQ on Historic Cultural Land

Activists fighting construction of the African headquarters of online retail giant Amazon will meet with lawyers Tuesday to plan their next move, after a court lifted an injunction that had temporarily blocked further work on the complex. The activists say the building site in South Africa has historic significance to local tribes. Supporters of the project say it will generate badly needed jobs and respect local sensitivities. 

Most recently the site was known as the River Club, with a somewhat rundown nine-hole golf course, a driving range and a conference facility. Now, what’s become known as the Amazon building is rising fast.

A court ruling last week that overturned an injunction to halt construction has been applauded by the developer, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust.

The trust argues that the mixed-use development where Amazon will be the anchor tenant will create 19,000 much-needed jobs.

James Tannenberger is the trust’s spokesperson.

“Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust welcomes the judgement which is a win for all Capetonians who stand to benefit from the R4.6-billion project,” James said. “This judgement sends a clear message to those who are trying to stop the development at all costs with little or no regard to the social development of the surrounding communities.”

Four-point-six-billion rand comes to about 266 million U.S. dollars.

There has been no comment from Amazon on the controversy.

The activists who obtained the injunction, the Observatory Civic Association, which represents some residents of the Observatory suburb where the development is situated, and Tauriq Jenkins, a council member of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoi, an indigenous group – say the fight is not over. 

They argue the land should be declared a World Heritage Site because this is where, in 1510, the first known battle between South Africans and European colonialists took place. 

A Khoi Khoi army defeated invading Portuguese who had slaughtered scores of their women and children. The tribes call it the place of the “First Encounter.”environmental concerns as the site marks the confluence of two rivers: the Liesbeek and the Black.

The injunction granted to them in March was rescinded last Tuesday, after the court heard from other members of Jenkins’ tribe, who said he did not have the power to represent them and that the Goringhaicona were in fact in favor of the development.

This effectively means they are siding with a group called the First Nations ecollective, which says it represents the majority of the Khoisan tribes and has been backing the development.

Leslie London is a University of Cape Town professor and chairperson of the Observatory Civic Association. London says he believes Jenkins was outmaneuvered by fellow tribe members.

London, however, says all is not lost as courts still have to conduct a review of whether the development was legally approved. 

“The case is still pending. It’s not the end of the case,” London said. “They haven’t thrown out the merits of the case. I don’t want to go down in history as being an interesting case. We still want to win it.”

He says a large part of the 150,000-square meter project has already been built.

“Overall, they probably have built about 40 percent of the whole building. There’s a lot still to come,” London said. “Amazon’s going to get higher and there are going to be a lot more buildings.”

The First Nations Collective’s spokesperson, Zenzile Khoisan, feels strongly that the new development will honor indigenous tribes’ history. It will include a heritage center, a garden of memory and roads and pathways with Khoisan names.

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