San is one of the indigenous nations in South Africa. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Amazon Africa HQ construction in Cape Town halted

Amidst lawsuits by local Indigenous groups, the $1.6 trillion dollar online megastore’s future plans on sacred grounds are halted until further notice.

On March 18, Western Cape deputy judge president Patricia Goliath paused construction by the Liesbeek Leisure Property (LLP) Trust to continue its River Club Development, a large-scale urban campus along the Black and Liesbeek Rivers. The site includes building the likes of the new Amazon Africa HQ in Observatory, Cape Town.

In her ruling, the judge declared that the interim interdict will remain in place until a review of the Trust’s intentions on the historic and culturally significant floodplain has been completed. Particularly, the judge cited that the Khoi and San, the First Nations located in the area, were not properly consulted before the project began.

“The order of this court must not be construed as a criticism against the development … The core consideration is the issue of proper and meaningful consultation with all affected First Nations Peoples,” Judge Goliath wrote. “The fact that the development has substantial economic, infrastructural and public benefits can never override the fundamental rights of First Nation Peoples.”

The plan costs an estimated R4.5 billion, the equivalent of about US $304 million. Despite being categorized as a significant cultural site by the Heritage Western Cape in 2017, the larger Two Rivers Urban Park (TRUP) area, a 34.6 acre plot, was sold by the Government to LLP Trust for R12 million. According to those who brought forth the lawsuit, the setting is a dominion of the Gorinhaiqua Khoi nation, and the only undeveloped remnant of summer grazing pastures for Khoekhoe cattle.

For years, two groups in the community have been on opposing sides of the court fight. Namely, the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council (GKKITC) who oppose the River Club development and a separate group of Khoisan people, the First Nations Collective (FNC) who support it. To add, the former excluded themselves from meetings leading up to the plan’s approval, while the FNC actually met with developers.

The GKKITC and the Observatory Civic Association (OCA) seek to permanently bar the plan because  citing the development  disturbs their ancestral terrain and tradition, all the while, ignoring their land privileges. Although the collectives say they were never invited to the consultation process, the GKKITC laments that non-participation did not waive their consultation prerogatives in the first place. Under the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention international law (ILO Convention No. 169), they argue the meetings were flawed as corporations should consult indigenous communities under their own terms. So, they lawyered up with Cullinan and Associates and brought forth an application for interdiction, or authoritative prohibition, to the Cape Town High Court in late January 2022.

“We’re in a situation where a terrain that is so sacred to the people of our country is not just under threat, but being damaged and destroyed as we speak,” conveyed GKKITC High Commissioner, Tauriq Jenkins.

On the other hand, the FNC says they spoke to and believe in the merits of their dialogue with LLP Trust owners. In a 2020 letter posted by GroundUp, the group revealed their hope that the new development plan could mean millions, even billions in revenue for the region. Especially as unemployment consistently rears  its ugly head in the already disenfranchised, often impoverished people.

As well, they state that the Heritage Western Cape (HWC) ignores the good of the project, which seeks to “preserve and celebrate the relevant First Nations heritage, rehabilitate and indigenise the local ecology while providing thousands of jobs which will benefit thousands of unemployed first nation descendants.”

Since then, FNC has received a plethora of push back from tribal authorities.

Amazon made almost 200 percent more in profit during the height of the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, its founder, now is worth over $200 billion. Now the US-based company is pushing for more reach in its global market. Photo credit: Nico Baum on Unsplash

Through hunger and disease

According to Foreign Policy, the Khoisan were some of the first inhabitants and pastoralists of southern Africa, as well as being one of the earliest Homo sapiens. In approximately 2300 BP, hunter-gatherers called the San acquired domestic livestock and settled in modern-day Botswana, in the central-southern region of the continent. Once settled, their population grew and spread westward. 

Eventually, the migratory group referred to themselves as Khoikhoi, or Khoe, meaning ‘men of men’ or ‘the real people.’ The two distinct ways of the San and the Khoikhoi caused misunderstandings and subsequent conflict. 

In the mid-17th century, the Khoikhoi were among the first groups who met Dutch colonizers.  From their initial encounters with European aggressors, the indigenous group has been nearly exterminated through enslavement lasting hundreds of years, land takeovers, and multiple waves of genocide carried out by the Dutch who became Afrikaners and British occupiers. 

Included in the oppression they experienced, the Khoikhoi were among the first that the settlers referred to as ‘Hottentots,’ mocking their method of language which entails a distinctive clicking sound.

Ever since, the tribe has called for restoration of ownership for whereabouts historically stripped away from their people. Yet in modern times, they remain steadfast in protest. Legendary South African freedom fighter and first Black president in the nation, Nelson Mandela, finds his lineage with the indigenous groups.

From November 2018 and during the pandemic, the group led by Chief Khoisan SA, embarked on a 750 miles journey from the eastern Cape to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the country’s capital. They camped for two years in front of the Nelson Mandela statue, vowing not to move until they were recognized as “the first nation” in South Africa, and their land entitlement demands were met. Even if that meant sitting through hunger or COVID-19. 

This came after South Africa announced a plan to empower Black farmers—who have the least percentage of ownership in the area—by allowing them to buy state plots for agricultural purposes via a new reform process. The Khoisan maintain that said territories belong to them and should be expropriated back to their ethnic group.

To add, they also urge the government to ban “coloured” as their classification in official documents; a term deemed derogatory since 1991. Added to their demands, they requested one of their traditional dialects–KhoeKhoe–become South Africa’s twelfth official language. 

Although South Africa has voted in favor of adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it has yet to fully ratify ILO Convention No. 169 as per the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. To add, President Cyril Ramaphosa enacted the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership law, seeking to restore the legitimacy of these institutions as well as recognize their traditions and practices In November 2019. Yet, the legislative effort was not enough. 

“[The Traditional and Khoisan Leadership bill] does not say how much land will be given to us. It’s basically just an old bill that’s just made to sound good with fancy words,” expressed Chief Khoisan SA to Independent Online South Africa. He claimed the legislation was old and did little to recognize the group. 

The leader continued, “We went through a public participation process and made suggestions of what we want…[that] were not used to amend the bill. It’s clear the president is not yet ready to take us serious[ly] and we shall continue our protest.”

. . . .

Currently, Amazon has global offices throughout the U.S and Europe, and numerous other locations. In Newark, New Jersey, protests are taking place against Amazon building a hub at the airport. Needless to say, a possibly temporary stopgap does little to affect their bottom line. 

However, Chinese expansionism into Africa for the last 20 years, as well as the online war between the country and global conglomerate, shows future challenges in who will use the continent’s natural resources to emerge as the top manufacturer on the world stage. Time and the courts will dictate where they stand in the global rat race. 

Until then, it seems a Khoisan Revolution of sorts may indeed be underway; with the group even postulating themselves as a force to be reckoned with in local politics. Nevertheless, they remain seated and firm on recouping what was stolen from their ancestors–prime real estate. 

Thus far, Amazon has yet to comment on the blockade.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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