/ 29 September 2020

River Club redevelopment is a triumph for the future of First Nations’ heritage

River Club Recreational Spaces (1)
River Club.

Right of reply to How to whitewash colonial pain and trauma, Mail & Guardian 24 September

Just a stone’s throw away from the bustling Cape Town CBD lies a largely barren and vacant piece of well-located privately-owned land at the River Club, Observatory. Currently, the River Club land is closed to the public and accessible only by those seeking to access the golf and conference facilities on a small section of the site.

The space has been crying out for respectful upgrade and the establishment of a vibrant, safe and accessible precinct for all Capetonians to live, play and work in a revitalised setting that also celebrates First Nations heritage. This is precisely what the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust has set out to do over the past four years (contrary to the article by Jonty Cogger and Robyn Park-Ross).

Our extensive, transparent, constructive public engagements over the past four years included a detailed analysis of heritage considerations at the site. Whereas the article states that the developer has engaged exclusively with only one First Nations group, the complete opposite is true.

We have had many robust interactions with all of the First Nations representatives, who have an interest in the area, whose histories and inputs have been respectfully incorporated throughout the planning and design of the reimagined River Club space. In fact, the majority of senior indigenous Khoi and San leaders in the Peninsula have expressed their full and unequivocal support for the redevelopment, and we are appreciative of the learnings they have inculcated.

Our cohesive process included appointing a team of independent heritage experts towards an understanding of the significance of the River Club site to the First Nations, and identifying indigenous, intangible cultural heritage specific to the location. Most importantly, this process also focused on unpacking the First Nations’ aspirations for the site for inclusion in the final development plans.

Extensive discussions with First Nations groupings and representatives with an interest in the River Club site, as well as the broader Two Rivers area were held with: the Gorinhaiqua, Gorachouqua, Cochoqua, the Griqua Royal Council, the San Traditional Royal House, and the National Khoi and San Council. This grouping has named themselves the First Nations Collective. It is unfortunate that Tauriq Jenkins —  representing one grouping, the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council — decided not to participate in these meaningful and constructive discussions despite repeated invitations and requests.

Based on these engagements, the First Nations Collective have publicly expressed their support for the project, which they believe will provide a ground-breaking opportunity to reclaim, share and celebrate First Nations heritage with the public. 

This will include a distinctive heritage cultural and media centre. The centre will be operated by the First Nations people and will provide critical job opportunities to members of these communities. The First Nations’ rich history will be further commemorated through the inclusion of symbols central to their narrative in the landscaping, architectural iconography and educational signage in the beautiful open spaces throughout the inclusive space. The project will also feature an indigenous medicinal garden that will be planted, cultivated and used by the First Nations people, as well as a heritage-eco trail and garden amphitheatre for use by the First Nations and the general public. The amphitheatre will provide an ideal platform for the First Nations’ heritage to visibly spring into our public cultural life.

We are proud to be part of a project that will acknowledge, embrace, protect and celebrate the First Nations indigenous narrative and look forward to continuing transparently working with the collective to establish this first-of-its-kind landmark in the City of Cape Town.

The celebration of relevant heritage is supported by a number of other comprehensive and independent specialist reports that meticulously assessed the biodiversity, hydrology, socioeconomic and visual effects of the project. These reports were drafted after extensive public participation processes and have taken into consideration the input received from interested and affected parties over many years.

The result is a development proposal that truly is for the people of Cape Town and the Western Cape. Nearly 60% of the site, or 8.4 hectares, will be publicly accessible open areas — the equivalent of 13 soccer fields — which will include 6km of safe running and cycling pathways. The redevelopment will also catalyse the major rehabilitation of the severely degraded water courses on the site. This will see the creation of an ecological corridor wider than Cape Town stadium’s football pitch, which will link the swales along the Liesbeek Parkway to the rehabilitated Liesbeek River.

This catalytic project will also create 5 239 critical jobs during the construction phase and a further 860 local people will be employed once the development is complete. Furthermore, in recognition of the injustices that plague our post-apartheid spatial realities, 20% of the residential component of this private development will also be dedicated to developer-subsidised inclusionary housing. The 6 000m² of affordable housing rental stock will also be fully integrated into the open market residential component of the development.  This will allow key workers delivering essential services to surrounding communities an opportunity to live close to where they work.

We are pleased that after considering our detailed and extensive development applications both the Western Cape government and the City of Cape Town have given the green light for the redevelopment. We have always approached this project with maximum transparency and have remained committed to all planning approval processes as required by law. As part of this process, we also elected to hold off our rezoning application to the Municipal Planning Tribunal for more than two years, while we awaited the outcome of our environmental application to the Western Cape government. As these are independent processes, we were not legally obliged to do this. It is therefore disingenuous for objectors to claim that these processes have been rushed.

We are proud to be delivering a development that celebrates our province’s rich history and heritage, and presents many exciting opportunities for the people of the Western Cape. By converting a private golf driving range into an accessible, urban green space with a variety of amenities that will be enjoyed by all communities, we believe that we will be making a contribution towards spatial justice and improving access to land in the city. 

It is regrettable that people who claim to speak for the working class and poor are trying to block it. We remain committed to working with everyone who wants to create a more inclusive, sustainable and prosperous city and province.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.