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Fight over controversial redevelopment of River Club heads to court

The River Club precinct in Observatory, Cape Town may be “privately owned” but the history it holds belongs to humanity and to the Khoi and San people, who once inhabited the area for thousands of years.

This is detailed in an affidavit by Tauriq Jenkins, the high commissioner of the Goringhaicona Khoi-Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, who said the site was a sacred space that could “heal our nation”.

The affidavit forms part of a looming court battle over the controversial multibillion-rand redevelopment of the River Club, which got underway this week when legal papers were filed in the Western Cape high court against the Liesbeek Leisure Property Trust (LLPT) and the government departments that gave the green light to the controversial redevelopment project.

“The River Club site is part of an area that is the epicentre of not just colonial conquest, dispossession and diaspora, but also of resistance,” Jenkins said. “This is a place of deep spiritual meaning and of revolution. This is a nexus of our heritage; our relationship with the stars, the river and sacred animals. It is where colonial conquest began — and where it was defeated.”

The legal action, according to the applicants — the Goringhaicona Khoi-Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council and the Observatory Civic Association, is necessary to prevent the “wanton and baseless destruction” of the intangible heritage of the Liesbeek Riverine Valley and the “environmental harms inherent” in the project. 

US multinational technology company Amazon is the anchor tenant in the R4.6-billion mixed-use development, which would house its new African headquarters. The project includes residential units, office and retail space, a hotel, a gym, restaurants, and conferencing, schools and events space. 

The groups say their objections have been discarded “in the rush to allow Amazon to set up headquarters”.

On Monday, they served notice on the LLPT for an urgent interdict to halt the construction and earthworks to implement the redevelopment. Alongside the interdict is a notice for a high court review of the decisions to approve the development by the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape department of environmental affairs and development planning.

The applicants contend that their application is consistent with concerns raised by professionals within the city’s environmental management division over climate, environmental and heritage breaches. Heritage Western Cape, the body that has statutory responsibility for regulating development that has the potential to affect heritage, declared the environmental authorisation unlawful.

Jenkins detailed how the Two Rivers Urban Park precinct and the River Club site have great historical significance for all South Africans. 

“This was the site of the first resistance against colonial intrusion, where the Khoi successfully defended their settlements against the predations of the Portuguese admiral of Almeida in 1510, but were later dispossessed of their land by the Dutch settlers who displaced by the Khoi by settling Duch farmers on land that the Khoi had previously used for their herds. It is the site where slaves were brought for the time for agricultural reasons; where Afrikaans as a language was born.”

The chairperson of the Observatory Civic Association, Leslie London, said in his affidavit that the River Club was a “virtual island”, occurring at the confluence of the Black and Liesbeek rivers and an important green lung in the city.

In her affidavit, Diedre Prins-Solani, an independent consultant and practitioner specialising in the fields of intangible heritage research, education and community-based inventory taking, said Heritage Western Cape’s rejection of the heritage impact assessment was correct under law. 

A new assessment must be undertaken, adequately identifying living heritage related to the site, and the significance and values of the living heritage elements associated with the site “must fundamentally inform any development plan, as opposed to being last-minute mitigating additions”, she said.

The LLPT confirmed that it had received an email of the notice of a court application from the applicants.

“As the first respondent in the matter, the LLPT will oppose this opportunistic attempt by a handful of misplaced activists to put a stop to the R4.6-billion project, which will create over 6 000 direct and 19 000 indirect jobs at this time when our economy needs it most,” it said.

“Most disingenuously, the group has lodged their application in order to ‘protect’ the First Nations’ heritage, despite the majority of the Cape’s Khoi and San leaders and representatives being in vociferous support of the project, including those of the Gorinhaiqua, Gorachouqua, Cochoqua, Korana, Griqua Royal Houses, and the San Royal House of Nǀǀnǂe.” 

In light of the comprehensive environmental and development-planning approval process that was undertaken and the “many benefits” that it will deliver to the people of Cape Town and the Western Cape, the LLPT said it would oppose a review of the administrative processes, on the basis that there were no valid grounds to prevent the redevelopment from going ahead.

The LLPT said the project would restore the degraded site, which previously housed a golf course, conference facilities, and restaurant and bar, alongside a concrete, canalised river that had been stripped of its biodiversity, “into a beautiful and biodiverse space”. 

This, it said, will include 8.4 hectares of publicly accessible green open spaces, developer-subsidised inclusionary housing and a landmark cultural, heritage and media centre celebrating the rich heritage and history of the Cape’s First Nations people.

The City of Cape Town did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication. In April, it approved the upmarket development project, describing it as a significant boost to the city’s economy and sustainable development, which“balances ecological conservation and urban development”.

According to Jenkins, that the site had been damaged in the past (by using it as a landfill and as a golf course) in “no way justifies further damage”, while effort effort must be made to  restore the landscape and rivers of the Two Rivers Urban Park area to “use it as a living expression of Khoi and San culture; to commemorate its historical significance, both as the initial point of impact of the colonial project and the resistance to land dispossession”.

Although the impression has been created that the proposed development is now supported by most First Nations organisations “… the Goringhaicona and most other First Nations Groups believe that we have a cultural, spiritual and ancestral duty to protect such places from threats of destruction”, Jenkins added.

The infilling of the natural course of the Liesbeek River and much of the floodplain would be “an unforgivable assault” on the river, he said, and destroy a crucial element of it forever.  “The construction of high buildings would obstruct the sight lines between the area around the confluence of the rivers and the mountain and irretrievably alter the sense of place and the open vistas.”

“What comes across clearly through this action is the Observatory Civic Association is hell-bent on sabotaging our right of return to the original Gorinhaiqua lands and to create a permanent heritage enclave on the site, which has been secured after an intense struggle over almost three decades in which the association and their indigenous puppets played absolutely no part,” said Chief !Garu Zenzile Khoisan, head of the Gorinhaiqua Cultural Council and chairperson of the Western Cape First Nations Collective.

According to the statement, on 23 June this year, leaders of the Western Cape First Nations Collective and the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust signed a “far-reaching” social compact that will place a permanent heritage footprint for Khoi and San descendants on the land that marks the very first site of dispossession of the Khoi in South Africa.

“With this watershed act of radical reconciliation, the right for First Nations descendants to assert their cultural agency and claim, without any apology, their inalienable Right of Return, in perpetuity, for seven generations and beyond has been sealed … This social compact, between a private corporate entity and a fully authoritative collective of First Nations leaders has set a high new watermark with this historic agreement.”

This, the collective said, creates legally binding conditions for the establishment of a permanent, world class heritage, cultural and media centre, a fully functional indigenous garden for our Khoi and San indigenous knowledge systems, an indigenous amphitheatre for showcasing First Nation talent and a fully developed heritage trail “that marks the searing crucible of our journey as a people”.

The interdict application is set down to be heard on 16 August.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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