/ 5 November 2022

Attacks against River Club redevelopment: Same lies, different day

Riverclub Firstnationscentre 01
The River Club Development.

The article “The River Club: Flawed processes and a dirty fight over development and heritage” by Jens Horber (Mail & Guardian, 29 October 2022) refers.

Over the past year, Horber, who only recently qualified as a town planner, has voiced his opposition to the River Club (well beyond the scope of planning matters). Unfortunately, his attacks are almost entirely based on misinformation and bias. 

Horber places much emphasis on Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath’s decision to interdict construction at the River Club site. But he then downplays the critical development of the supreme court of appeal (SCA) in Bloemfontein overturning Goliath’s subsequent refusal to allow her decision and orders to be appealed. Instead, the SCA ordered the full bench of the Western Cape high court to consider the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust’s (LLPT’s) — and the Western Cape government, City of Cape Town and the Western Cape First Nations Collective — application for dismissal of her entire judgment and orders.

The court heard this appeal matter on 11 and 12 October, along with a rescission application launched by the elders and members of the Goringhaicona (through the council of Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council/ GKKITC). The GKKITC approached the courts asking for a rescission of the entire Goliath judgment and orders on the basis that these parties did not want GKKITC to continue being drawn into the litigation initiated by Tauriq Jenkins in their name.

Critically, they accused Jenkins of misrepresenting facts in the Goliath court hearing and subsequently trying to coerce certain First Nations parties to sign affidavits against their wishes. Jenkins was given an opportunity to respond to these allegations and questions raised by the judges in these court proceedings. The decision and judgment of the court is now awaited in both the appeal and the recession matters.

Horber repeats the same misinformation spread by Jenkins and Leslie London, who have stated their sole desire is to attempt to stop the development. But they have failed to demonstrate any right that is threatened by the development (and have not been able to evidence “irreparable” harm, which is a requirement for granting an interdict), because the reality is that the development only elevates the associative heritage value of the area and rehabilitates the degraded environment.

The court papers now filed in the review matter (Part B) by the LLPT, evidence that the 18 indigenous Khoi parties Jenkins refers to as being excluded from participation were aware of the public participation processes but chose not to register as interested and affected parties in the respective provincial and city public participation processes. They cannot now complain about so-called exclusion when this is clearly not the case. 

Horber also keeps referring to an online petition that has been sent around by Jenkins and London as proof that there is widespread public opposition to the development. Yet this petition (which circulated post the environmental and planning development approvals) was also based on misinformation and lies, and under the Municipal By Laws, requiring proper and transparent public participation processes, would have to have been disregarded by the authorities.

The real facts are that the majority of Cape Khoi leaders in the Peninsula support the River Club redevelopment and were consulted throughout the development approval process. This process culminated in a redevelopment plan that will include a number of amenities to commemorate and celebrate the intangible heritage of the broader Two Rivers area — of which the River Club property forms 5%. This will include a cultural, heritage and media centre, which will be operated and managed by the First Nations, an indigenous garden, heritage eco-trail and garden and an amphitheatre to function both as sites of memory and living cultural practice and celebration.

The truth is that London and Jenkins (and Horber) are unhappy that their comments were onsidered and addressed by the competent authorities in the lengthy application and statutory appeal processes undertaken when the authorities provided detailed reasons for approving the development. The Observatory Civic Association (OCA) and Jenkins then belatedly launched a review process six months after the provincial decision to grant environmental authorisation. It is clear this court application is nothing more than a thinly disguised appeal dressed as a review and has no foundation.

Perhaps one of the most offensive insinuations in Horber’s piece is that there was some sort of collusion between the developer and the City of Cape Town when it granted planning authorisation and the suggestion that the specialist consultant reports submitted with the development application lacked independence due to the consultants being paid by the developer. Not one piece of evidence has been offered by Horber to back this claim, despite him questioning the integrity and independence of officials and some of the most renowned professionals in their respective fields in South Africa.

Instead, his lack of understanding of the planning approval processes is evidenced with his insinuation that the “city gets” a bridge to alleviate traffic as part of the development contribution/ harges paid by the developer”. But the cost incurred by the LLPT on this and other infrastructure is over and above any normal contributions, and as a planner he should realise the positive effect this link road will have on Maitland and Salt River and the surrounding areas. This is something which the city does recognise, in its statutory function, as an imperative for promoting sustainable developments that are in the interest of the broader public. The River Club development squarely meets these imperatives.

Horber also makes several other defamatory accusations that have repeatedly been driven by Jenkins and London without a shred of evidence. This includes the following three mistruths:

First, creating the impression that there was something seriously amiss with the sale of the River Club land to the developer. Here are the facts: the R12-million purchase refers to what is on the historical bare dominium title deed and has nothing to do with the lease and development rights and business interests involved. The land and development rights were lawfully purchased, and the continued allegations made by the supporters of OCA and Jenkins, such as Horber, are foundless and defamatory.

Second, that the River Club site was not shortlisted by Amazon as a preferred site for its new regional offices. Here are the facts: architect Derick Henstra, who allegedly drew up this shortlist, was part of a competing unsuccessful bid for Amazon’s new office. It is therefore curious why he supposedly had the authority to come up with a list of preferred sites. Henstra also bid to be an architect on the River Club site and did not succeed. We therefore believe his claims, which have been used in the applicant’s supporting affidavits, are baseless, malicious and nothing more than sour grapes.

Third, the claim that the South Africa Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) is in the process of grading this site as part of the broader Two Rivers Urban Park is not true. While Jenkins submitted an application for provincial heritage status (that Heritage Western Cape has not pursued); and now an application for national heritage status, the SAHRA has not graded the site. Before it could even consider doing so, the agency would be required to undertake an objective assessment of his application and provide the LLPT as the land owner the right to be consulted and consider any reports. So although the OCA and Jenkins, on the back of their own application, claim they speak for the SAHRA, this is false and misleading.

Where Horber is correct is that the government has begun a process to investigate the identification of the two rivers’ broader area as part of the Khoisan Legacy Project and the National Liberation Heritage Route. Two members of the Western Cape First Nations Collective (who have consulted the LLPT and support the development) have been appointed by the minister of sport, arts and culture to a committee to drive this initiative forward. 

Finally, when it comes to his claims about the environmental impact of the development, here are the real facts: the natural resources on the site, including the water courses adjacent to the property, are severely degraded. As part of the redevelopment, some R38-million will be spent on rehabilitating the riverine corridor that will boast an improved habitat for several species including the Western Cape leopard toad, the giant kingfisher and the Cape dwarf chameleon.

During the development approval process, a number of detailed reports by independent specialists were submitted including detailed surface water hydrology and biodiversity assessments by a multidisciplinary team that included a freshwater ecologist, avifaunal specialist, faunal specialist (with specific expertise in herpetology), surface water hydrologist, botanist, and hydrogeologist, which found that the redevelopment will be a positive net benefit on the local environment, and not have a detrimental effect as claimed by Horber, London and Jenkins.

Horber’s reliance on post fact reports by Professor John Dewar and Dr Michael Mentis (which were provided as supporting affidavits for claims made by the OCA and Jenkins) ignore the rebuttals made by the engineers, planners, professional aquatic ecologist and professional natural scientist and other experts in the affidavits filed in the review matter. The qualified engineers have also demonstrated that neither Mentis nor Dewar have the requisite formal qualifications or professional experience to comment on the hydrology work undertaken by engineers and other engineering aspects. 

It is unfortunate that despite the LLPT and the other respondents in the court case having repeatedly debunked the accusations made by Horber, he continues trying to drive this misinformation in the media. The LLPT remains committed to delivering the world class development that will celebrate the heritage associated with the broader area and will provide a range of socioeconomic benefits to nearby areas including developer subsidised inclusive housing, publicly accessible green spaces and more than 6 000 direct and 19 000 indirect jobs.

James Tannenberger is a trustee of the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, the developer of the River Club redevelopment

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