Amazon’s new headquarters spark controversy among indigenous South Africans

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Amazon’s new headquarters spark controversy among indigenous South Africans

Cape Town – On grassy land with an open view of Cape Town’s picturesque Table Mountain, a squad of yellow tractors cleared much for a new $300 million new commercial and residential development that has not only made its way into South Africa, There has been a debate over the location. , but also for its anchor tenant: tech giant Amazon.

The 37-acre site at the confluence of two rivers is widely believed to be located in the area where indigenous South Africans first fought colonial invaders, and some indigenous leaders see the development as an insult to the Holy Land.

“A concrete block for an Amazon headquarters in this area is serious and obscene,” said Torik Jenkins, who leads nearly two dozen indigenous groups protesting the development.

But not all indigenous leaders are on the same page. When Chief Zenzile Khoisan looks at the construction, he sees a victory for his people: the developer has agreed to build a heritage center, in plain view of Amazon’s offices, which is believed by some to be the country’s First Nations people. is referred to as.

Big corporations have “screwed up the First Nations,” Mr Khoisan said, his modest frame being hit by the wind in the clearing. “So maybe Amazon is going to get a little education.”

In the words of the agency charged with protecting the heritage, leaders of indigenous groups in South Africa are now locked in a vicious internal battle over the future of a patch of land, located in “one of the most historically significant sites in the country”. Is. Sites in the Western Cape Province.

The fight, which is also ongoing in court, has been marked by accusations of humiliation, selling out, and a deep debate about who can claim authentic indigenous heritage and speak for the community. South Africa’s indigenous communities were destroyed through centuries of genocide and racist apartheid policy – ​​so it is often unclear who has the right to speak up for indigenous peoples.

The development of River Club, formerly named after a golf club on the site, has also caused division within the government. Some politicians have rallied behind the project – the city chose Amazon as an economic boon to Cape Town as its “base of operations on the African continent”. But officials from local environmental and heritage agencies have objected.

A judge at the Western Cape High Court is expected to issue a decision soon on a petition filed by opponents, who argue that construction should be halted because the development does not comply with heritage laws.

Critics also see a repetition of a familiar cycle: rich, and mostly white, interests find their way, while marginalized communities are left to fend for themselves. A provincial heritage tribunal criticized government leaders for employing a “divide and rule” politics.

Indigenous identity is difficult to determine in South Africa. Thousands of years ago, the people now known as the San evolved from prehistoric people, said Michael de Jong, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of South Africa. The Khoi settled in the country 2,000 years ago. Then, about 800 years ago, black Africans from elsewhere on the continent migrated to South Africa.

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Indigenous communities were disbanded over the years, so being indigenous in South Africa became a matter of identifying with the culture and following traditions, rather than proving one’s ancestry. In recent decades, a global resurgence of interest in indigenous peoples helped inspire the formation of myriad groups claiming First Nations heritage in South Africa. Parliament passed a law in 2019 that would allow indigenous groups to apply for official recognition. Many have claimed to be the leader of the First Nations.

Mr Khoisan, 60, who identifies as the head of the Gorinhaika Cultural Council, argued that Mr Jenkins was being used for the mostly white, anti-development residents’ union observatory, which surrounds the site. Is. He also said that Mr Jenkins was not actually indigenous, but from Zimbabwe, and that his allies were a small group of “imposters”.

“Many of them are led by chiefs whose IQs are below room temperature,” Mr Khoisan said.

Mr Jenkins, 41, who identifies as high commissioner of the Goringhaikona Khoi Khoi Indigenous Traditional Council, called his description of Mr Khoisan racist. He said he is South African and has been sworn in as an indigenous leader, but he was born in Zimbabwe because his parents were activists living in exile there. In return, he accused Mr Khoisan, a former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, of leading “a close group of chiefs” who are creating confusion about First Nations identity in order to help the developer.

Indigenous leaders and researchers generally agree that in the vicinity of the development, which is nestled between the Black and Lisbec rivers, the Khoi warriors formed the first resistance to colonization in South Africa in 1510 by Portuguese explorer Francisco de’. Alameda’s attack was countered. , The first colonial claim to land in this common area also occurred in the late 17th century by Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck.

In 1939, the Public Railroad Company built a whites-only sports club for its workers in what is now the development site. In recent years, it has been a private golf course and driving range.

The property’s owner, Lisbeck Leisure Property Trust, announced in late 2015 that it planned to build a development there. Mr Jenkins first expressed the concern in a public meeting with the developer in early 2018.

“It is the silence of a very powerful history that draws us to Original Sin,” Mr Jenkins said of developments on land where colonists attacked indigenous peoples.

In late 2019, when provincial officials accused the developer of not properly consulting First Nations people, indigenous supporters of the development came out publicly for the first time.

Mr. Khoisan and his colleagues formed a group called the First Nations Collective, which supported developments in public hearings and newspapers.

They negotiated a deal with the developer to build an amphitheater, medicinal garden and educational signage, along with a First Nations heritage and media center run by indigenous peoples.

The developer stated on its website that the collective represented “the vast majority of senior Khoi and San leaders” and that the development was supported by “relevant” First Nations peoples.

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Patrick Tariq Mellet, a leading scholar of indigenous South Africans, said in an email that while the leaders of the collective had solid credentials, neither side could claim to represent all Khoi or other marginalized indigenous communities.

But Mr Mallett was skeptical about the developer’s commitment to respecting indigenous heritage, calling it a “gate-opening exercise” that could be abandoned.

One of the developers, Jodi Aufrichtig, said that they sought to work with indigenous people from the beginning of the project. As evidence, he provided an email from Ron Martin, a Lost leader and heritage expert from August 2016, in which Mr. Martin thanked Mr. Aufrichtig for engaging with the First Nations people, and rand 22,700 (about $1,500). Offered to provide consultancy services for ,

Mr Martin said in an interview that he never did consulting work and did not receive any payment from Mr Aufrichtig.

“Any way to assume that we as a collective or lost people as a whole have sold our souls to develop the eight pieces of silver is ridiculous,” he said. “We’re in this for a very, very big thing. It’s to preserve the heritage legend of the Khoi and San people.”

Amazon, which has three data centers in the Cape Town area, has apparently calmed down as the controversy, declined to comment for coverage of this or other news outlets.

Cape Town’s Department of Environmental Management appealed the approval granted by another agency, warning that the development posed “significant cumulative negative environmental impacts and risks, particularly to flooding.”

And the provincial agency, Heritage Western Cape, argued that the development would compromise the site’s value as a sacred place for indigenous peoples.

As the debate progressed, the developer warned city officials that “it could lose Amazon as an interested partner in development,” said Cape Town City Council member Marion Nieuvaud. (The developer’s representative denied this in an interview.)

Ultimately, the Provincial Minister for Environment Affairs approved the project last February, arguing that the developers, who changed the design more than 250 times, had done a good job of reducing the risk of flooding and increasing the heritage value of the site. done enough. He also praised the development plan to convert the private golf club into mostly public park land. The then mayor of Cape Town signed off on the project last April.

James Vos, a city council member who oversees economic development, said of Amazon, “Having their headquarters here in Cape Town, it means the world.”

But getting to this point has worsened the long-standing struggle for Indigenous recognition, said Cecil Le Fleur, president of the National Khoi and San Council, which the government had created more than 20 years ago to represent indigenous interests. . He said that he did not take any stand on development.

“I am not happy when I see how our people become more and more divided,” he said.

linsey chutel Contributed to reporting.

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