The environmental impact of the Amazon development in Cape Town, South Africa – part two 

The Amazon Africa development in Cape Town has been one of the most contentious fights in recent South African history. What started out as a run-of-the-mill development deal has descended into court case hearing after court case hearing.  The development has created clashes between indigenous groups about heritage and the sanctity of the land itself. In a two-part series, LING SHEPHERD takes a look at all the arguments.

This story was produced as part of the Indigenous Story Grants, a journalism fellowship organised by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

In part two, Ling shows the argument against the development, and highlight indigenous activist opinions.

Find Part One here

A case against development

The Liesbeek Action Campaign (LAC) is an all-inclusive campaign fighting to preserve the Liesbeek Black River Confluence. 

The LAC’s stance is that the confluence of the Liesbeek and Black Rivers is sacred land. It is a vital green corridor of Cape Town, houses sensitive indigenous flora and fauna. It is also a site of memory for the First Nation community and South Africa – the site is associated with indigenous resistance since 1510. The indigenous Khoi defeated Portuguese colonists in the Battle of 1510 saving South Africa from becoming a Portuguese colony. 

 “The approval process was flawed on heritage, environmental & legal grounds”.

TRUP has been acknowledged as a vital national resource by Heritage Western Cape. The full TRUP LSDF (Local Spatial Development Framework) can be found here

 The LAC cited the City of Cape Town’s own Environmental Department opposing the redevelopment, to preserve the indigenous flora and fauna. The LAC opposed the development that proposed to raise the land 3.5m above natural ground, leaving more than 10% of the site in a semi natural state. This is in contravention of local, provincial, and national policy and spatial plans as outlined in the Environmental Management Framework approved by the Western Cape Environmental Affairs & Development Plan. 

The appeal report here highlighted important factors not considered like climate change impacts and resilience. The LAC is supported by numerous civil society organisations, environmental organisations, experts, heritage and rights organisations, and indigenous councils and organisations.  

“The decision does not give due consideration to climate change impacts and resilience and fails to apply the precautionary principle”.

The Observatory Civic Association (OCA) is a non-profit organisation that represents the Observatory community, the neighbourhood of the redevelopment. The OCA partnered with over 60 indigenous groups, environmental NGOs, and civic associations in opposing the redevelopment. The OCA has campaigned extensively for the heritage preservation of the site, and spoken up about the evidence of adverse impacts of the development on the environment. 

Like the confluence of the two rivers there are many intersections at present here

The unemployment rate in South Africa is at 33.9%. The pandemic worsened employment opportunities as many industries were affected adversely.  The historical effects of colonialism and apartheid have placed a large part of our population below the breadline. The redevelopment will create thousands of jobs. It will also rehabilitate the ecosystem of the area. The developers are also providing an opportunity for the First Nations people to memorialise the heritage of the site. 

“The context of this site and to all the sites around Cape Town is that it highlights the system. The issue around indigenous leaderships and what we need and what we don’t need. We need leadership that is practical, observant, and essential. Leadership that addresses poverty and homelessness, and the rights of the indigenous people that has been ratified. The indigenous movement is not united and upholds systems we want to overthrow like patriarchy,” explained Lucy Campbell, 65, indigenous historian and activist and co-founder of OppieYaart; an urban food justice project in Elsies River, Cape Town.

Others think that the heritage of the site is also an important factor in addressing and redressing injustices stemming from colonialism and apartheid. According to Jonathan Fortuin, 27, local youth activist and indigenous practitioner, the Amazon development feeds into the erasure of indigenous lives in South Africa and the land is more than a piece of land – it is ‘a beacon of hope’.

“The first problem I have is that capitalism has been at the centre of oppression forever. I see an erasure of essential part of history of the Khoi and San people. The erasure impacts us in various ways as we have been fighting for our collective identity. To be seen, felt, and heard. So, with the Liesbeeck development we know it is considered indigenous land. Land that belongs to the Khoi and San folk,” Fortuin said.

Other important factors include climate change effects and the densification of the area. The opposing sides and those in support of the redevelopment have valid concerns and arguments. The reality is that the redevelopment is approved. The only question now that needs to be answered is, will the redevelopment affect the fragility of the ecosystem of the site that has been heavily urbanised through the years? Will it be tested as the redevelopment continues. If it doesn’t, what would restoration look like? There is no telling what could happen. 

Editor’s note:  Permission to access the development site for photographs was challenging.  At the time of researching this article the matter was being heard in court.