Amazon’s new headquarters stirs hostility among indigenous peoples in South Africa

Cape Town – On an expanse of grassland with an open view of Cape Town’s scenic Table Mountain, a group of yellow tractors has cleared a lot for a new $300 million commercial and residential development that has sparked controversy in South Africa not only for its location, but also for its main 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 consider the development a sacrilege.

“The concrete blocks of the Amazon headquarters on this land are awful and scandalous,” said Tauriq Jenkins, who leads about two dozen indigenous groups opposed to development.

But not all indigenous leaders agree. When President Zanzel Khoisan looked at the construction, he saw a victory for his people: The developer agreed to build a heritage center, within sight of Amazon’s offices, telling the story of what some know as First Nations Peoples.

Big companies “disturbed First Nations,” Mr. Khoisan said, and the wind caught him in the clearing. “So maybe Amazon is getting a little education.”

Indigenous group leaders in South Africa are now fighting a fierce battle over the future of a patch of land located in “one of the most historically significant sites in the country,” in the words of the agency tasked with protecting heritage sites in the Western Cape.

The fight, also taking place in court, has been marked by insults, accusations of selling, and deeper discussions about who can claim the indigenous heritage and speak on behalf of the community. Indigenous communities in South Africa have been decimated over the centuries by genocide and apartheid – so it is not clear now who has the authority to speak for the indigenous people.

The River Club development, named after the golf club previously located on the site, caused a split within the government. Some politicians rallied behind the project – The praised the city Amazon chose Cape Town as its “base of operations on the African continent” as an economic boon. But officials at local environment and heritage agencies have raised objections.

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

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Critics also see a repeat of a familiar cycle: the interests of the wealthy, mostly white, get their way, while marginalized communities are left squabbling among themselves. A regional heritage court has criticized government leaders for using a “divide and rule” policy.

The identity of the indigenous people of South Africa is difficult to determine. Tens of thousands of years ago, a people now known as the San arose from prehistoric times, said Michael de Jong, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of South Africa. The Khoi settled in the country 2,000 years ago. Then, about 800 years ago, black Africans migrated from elsewhere on the continent to South Africa.

Indigenous communities have been disintegrating over many years, so being Aboriginal in South Africa has become a matter of introducing the culture and practicing tradition, rather than proving one’s origin. In recent decades, a renewed interest in indigenous peoples globally has helped drive the formation of countless groups in South Africa claiming First Nations heritage. Parliament passed a law in 2019 that will allow indigenous groups to apply for official recognition. Many people claimed to be First Nations leaders.

Mr. Khoisan, 60, who identifies as the head of the Gorenhaika Cultural Council, argued that Mr. Jenkins was used as a pioneer in the observatory, a suburb surrounding the site, an association of mostly white, anti-development residents. He also said that Mr. Jenkins was in fact not an indigenous, but rather a Zimbabwean, and that his allies were a small group of “pretendants”.

“Many of them are led by bosses with an IQ below room temperature,” Mr. Khoisan said.

Mr Jenkins, 41, known as the High Commissioner of the Gorengaikon Khoi Khoen Traditional Indigenous Council, described Mr Khoisan as a racist. He said he was South African and was sworn in as an indigenous leader, but he was born in Zimbabwe because his parents were activists living there in exile. In turn, Mr. Khoisan, a former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, has been accused of leading a “group of crony chiefs” who create confusion about First Nations identity to help the developer.

Aboriginal leaders and researchers generally agree that somewhere near the development zone, sandwiched between the Black and Lisbeck Rivers, The Khoi warriors fought an attack By the Portuguese explorer Francisco D’Almeida in 1510 in the first resistance to colonialism in South Africa. The first colonial claim to the land also occurred in this general area by Dutch settler Jan van Rijbeek in the late 17th century.

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In 1939, the General Railroad Company finished building a white-only gym for its workers at what is now the development site. In recent years, it has been a private golf course and driving range.

The property’s owner, Liesbeek Leisure Property Trust, announced in late 2015 that he planned to build a development there. Mr. Jenkins first raised his concerns in a public meeting with the developer in early 2018.

“It is the silencing of a very powerful history that draws us into original sin,” Mr. Jenkins said of the evolution on land where colonizers attacked indigenous people.

In mid-2019, after regional officials accused the developer of not properly consulting First Nations peoples, Indigenous supporters of the development publicly appeared for the first time.

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

They negotiated an agreement with the developer to build a First Nations heritage and media center, run by the indigenous people, as well as an amphitheater, medical garden, and educational signage.

On its website, the developer said that the group represented “the vast majority of senior Khoi and San leaders”, and that the development had the support of “related” First Nations peoples.

While the group’s leaders have strong credentials, neither side can claim to represent all Khoi tribes or other marginalized indigenous communities, Patrick Tariq Millett, a leading researcher on indigenous affairs in South Africa, said in an email.

But Mr Millet was skeptical about the developer’s commitment to honoring indigenous heritage, calling it a “gate-opening process” that could be abandoned.

Jody Aufrichtig, one of the developers, said he has sought to work with Indigenous people since the project’s inception. As proof, he provided an email from Ron Martin, a Khoi leader and heritage expert, from August 2016, in which Mr. Martin thanked Mr. Overechteig for his sharing with First Nations personnel, and offered to provide consulting services for R22,700 (about $1,500).

Mr Martin said in an interview that he had not done consulting work and had not received any payments from Mr Aufrichtig.

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He said, “Any kind of inference that we as a group or the Khoi people as a whole have sold their souls to develop eight pieces of silver, is absurd.” “We are in this for something much bigger. It is in order to preserve the narrative of the heritage of the Khoi and San people.”

Amazon, which has three data centers in the Cape Town area, has been visibly quiet as the controversy continues, declining to comment on this or other media coverage.

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

The provincial agency, Heritage Western Cape, said the development That would damage the value of the site As a sacred place for the indigenous people.

As the debate continued, the developer warned city officials “that it may lose out on Amazon as an interested partner in development,” said Marianne Neuudt, a Cape Town councilman. (A representative of the developer denied this in an interview.)

In the end, the provincial minister for environmental affairs The project was approved last February, arguing that the developers, who changed the design more than 250 times, had done enough to mitigate flood risk and enhance the site’s heritage value. He also praised the development’s plan to turn a private golf club into a mostly public park. The then mayor of Cape Town signed off on the project last April.

“To get them to land here in Cape Town, it means the world,” James Foss, the city council member overseeing economic development, said of Amazon.

Getting to this point has marred the long struggle for indigenous recognition, said Cecile Le Fleur, head of the Khoi and San National Council, which was set up by the government over 20 years ago to represent indigenous interests. He said he had not taken any position on the development.

“I am not happy when I see how our people are becoming more and more divided,” he said.

Lynsey Shuttle Contribute to the preparation of reports.

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