South Africa’s indigenous San and Khoi First Nation Peoples are celebrating a recent court ruling that has blocked Amazon from building a new headquarters that the groups say would do ‘irreparable harm’ to a sacred heritage site.
The temporary victory comes after years of campaigning against the e-commerce giant’s planned £230m development on a river that holds profound spiritual meaning to indigenous groups.
“It entails the ruination of a sacred river, going against the symbiotic relationship that indigenous communities have with the environment, the cosmos, and the embankments,” Tauriq Jenkins, High Commissioner of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Traditional Council – a Khoi traditional group who has been campaigning to halt the development and filed for interdict alongside the Observatory Civic Association – tells VICE World News. “It’s a very dystopian and horrific image, these huge concrete steel constructions that are now sitting there… and they should not have been there in the first place.”
On Sunday the 20th of March, South Africa’s Western Cape High Court ordered that construction on Amazon’s new Africa headquarters should be halted. Building on the 4.6bn Rand (£230m River Bank development has to be immediately terminated, according to a major interim ruling issued by Western Cape Deputy Judge Patricia Goliath after two months of hearings. It can only be resumed if the project developers, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLPT), have a “proper and meaningful consultation” with the affected indigenous groups. . The site was going to house the 70,000-sq metre Africa Headquarters alongside offices, flats and a Heritage and Cultural Centre.
However, the project – four stories of which have already been built – is sitting at the unique convergence of the Liesbeek River and the Black River: sacred land of immense cultural and spiritual significance to South Africa’s earliest-known inhabitants, the Khoi and San First Nation Peoples. They have repeatedly been displaced from their traditional lands by colonial settlers, most of which has never been restored to them.
As environmental, human rights campaigners and Khoi and San First Nation Peoples celebrated the major interim ruling at a cleansing ceremony on Monday, Jenkins tells VICE World News of orchestrated intimidation tactics, disinformation and smear campaigns being deployed to target and harass campaigners. Many campaigners have been given advice to get security and had to seek protection orders for their safety.
“There is an atmosphere of violence and retribution that has surrounded this,” Jenkins says. “The judiciary is under fire, and our judges are really holding the line. It is incredibly inspiring and heartwarming to know we are dealing with extraordinary people who will rule on what is right. This does give this country hope, and it gives us hope as we move along towards restorative justice.”
“The fundamental right to culture and heritage of indigenous groups, more particularly the Khoi and San First Nations Peoples, are under threat in the absence of proper consultation,” said Judge Goliath. Judge Goliath added that the ruling should not be “construed as criticism against the development,” but stressed that the 37-acre development’s “substantial economic, infrastructural and public benefits can never override the fundamental rights of First Nations Peoples.”
“The judgement speaks to, and really centralises on the inalienable right of First indigenous people to be meaningfully consulted and to have their sacred heritage preserved and protected, you cannot have an economic argument that trumps this, and I think that is the most poignant aspect about this ruling,” Jenkins says.
Construction of the site was approved by the City of Cape Town in April 2021, which initially described the development as a “significant boost to the Cape Town economy” following the harsh toll of COVID lockdowns.
In a statement, James Tannenberger, Spokesperson for LLPT, argued the development is a “genuine instance of indigenous agency.” He claimed that LLPT had engaged in dialogue with Khoi and San Groups who supported the development, such as the First Nations Collective (FNC), “to ensure both sustainable development and the enhancement of the site’s heritage resources”, including plans to construct a cultural and heritage centre commemorating the Khoi and San’s history.
LLPT says it intends to appeal Judge Goliath’s ruling, which it calls a “job-killing interdict”, and said it has resulted in the suspension of hundreds of sub-contractor contracts, including those of First Nation-owned companies.
But despite developers' assurances that the mammoth construction project would not have any negative impact on the environment, experts have pointed out that the development – which also sits on a 100-year-old floodplain – “violates almost all of the city’s environmental protection policies”.
“To approve such a large development in a vital floodplain is a risk to city infrastructure and finances, surrounding properties, and to physical safety,” says the Observatory Civic Association. “This is the development’s fundamental flaw.”
Police are also investigating a shooting outside the home of Judge Goliath, who also issued a major order blocking Oil Giant Shell’s exploration on the Eastern Cape in December 2021. The incident occurred just prior to the announcement of this ruling and follows the unearthing of an assassination plot on her life.
“In a poetic sense, you could think that you know, perhaps our David is Judge Goliath,” Jenkins adds “and if our David is Judge Goliath… she would sit by the river and listen to what the river was saying.”
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.