Housing and Land Rights

Fighting Amazon's neo-colonialism in Cape Town

Amazon is involved in determined attempts to destroy a site in Cape Town sacred to the Indigenous Khoi and San. But, together with their international allies, they are fighting back.
In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company was the largest multinational entity of its time. For South Africa's Khoi and San people, Amazon is the latter day Dutch East India Company.
In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company was the largest multinational entity of its time. For South Africa's Khoi and San people, Amazon is the latter day Dutch East India Company.

You may know Amazon through its delivery service, Prime, union busting, tax-dodging or its founder Jeff Bezos’ trip to space. But we, the Khoi and San, the Indigenous people of South Africa’s Western Cape, know Amazon as the latest chapter in the long history of our colonial dispossession. 

Here in Cape Town, the city that opened its doors to foreign investors and film making, sometimes to the short-term benefit of local inhabitants, the Liesbeek and Black Rivers meet at a site called the River Club. The land is not only environmentally sensitive, as it hosts a key wetland with endangered species and is one of few remaining unhardened open spaces in Cape Town: it is also a site sacred to the Khoi and San. Amazon is involved in determined attempts to destroy it.

For centuries, Indigenous herders would bring their families and livestock to seek summer pastorage to the River Club during the dry season, setting up camps along the rivers as part of movements of Indigenous groups in pre-colonial times. The access to water, views of the sacred mountains and relative protection from predators made this a highly significant space for Indigenous life. Here, the Khoi and San would observe the stars and hold sacred ceremonies and unions. Hence, they call the area |gamerodi Khaes — “the place where the stars gather”.

The site has also witnessed the first anti-colonial war when, in 1510, Khoi herders defeated the invading Portuguese colonists in a historic battle that swept up and back down the Liesbeek Valley. Later, in the 17th century, this was where the first frontier was established when the Dutch East India Company “gifted” the land to Dutch settlers. The theft of land precipitated the frontier wars with the Dutch, which led to the displacement of Khoi people from lands they had access to over centuries, and led to the gradual ethnocide of the Khoi language, knowledge systems and way of life. The bones of our ancestors are still found at the location of those battles, and must be honoured.

Now, a development attempts to place 150,000 square meters of concrete, involving 18 buildings up to 50m in height, on a 14.7 hectare piece of land. Amazon is slated to become the site's anchor tenant — thereby inscribing itself in the long history of colonial dispossession at the River Club.

The Liesbeek Action Campaign, a coalition comprising a wide range of Indigenous Khoi and San organisations, not-for-profits, faith-based groups, community networks, civics associations, trade unions, environmental and social justice activists, has been fighting against the development since it began last year. In the meantime, 75,000 people have signed a petition against the destruction of the River Club site.

As the site is recognised as a cultural landscape of enormous importance for the heritage of indigenous people, we applied for it to receive Provincial (federal) Heritage Status. The competent authority for Heritage in the Western Cape referred our application to the national heritage authority (SAHRA) for grading as a National heritage site. There is every indication that the site, being so important a locus for understanding the intimate connections between Indigenous people and the environment in the context of colonial conquest, will be nominated for a UNESCO heritage site.

Despite this obvious importance for the national heritage, the authorities have granted approvals for the development. So the coalition went to court to halt further development. In our court papers, we cited the fact that the competent heritage authority ruled that the developer’s Heritage Impact Assessment failed to meet the requirement of the law and declared the Environmental Authorisation granted to the developers by Provincial officials to be unlawful. The environmental and heritage professionals within the City appealed against the Environmental Authorisation but were overruled by the planners and the politicians who wanted this development to go ahead.

And the reason they did is, we believe, Amazon.

The developers stand to make millions from this deal — and they have done everything in their power to get approvals, including appointing  a PR consultant to set up a parallel First Nations structure that has been campaigning aggressively to ensure the development goes ahead. It is important to note that this parallel structure has no legitimacy as they don't regard the site worthy of protection. And as the anchor tenant, Amazon is giving tacit approval, if not actively encouraging the development. In fact, the only buildings being constructed at the moment out of all the 18 buildings are the four Amazon buildings. Amazon had 5 suitable options for their Head Office but chose a sacred floodplain and wetland site, entirely against planning policies.

Despite a court interdict halting construction pending a review of the decisions that led to the development going ahead, construction is going on right now. This is patently in contempt of court. As Judge Patricia Goliath ruled on 18th March 2022, “this matter ultimately concerns the rights of indigenous peoples” and economic benefits “can never override the fundamental rights of First Nations Peoples.” However, with ample funding, the developers managed to overturn the interdict, while our case has been crippled by lawfare draining our funds.

We have written to Amazon on four occasions to inform them about their complicity in the destruction of what should be a national and international heritage site. We have never received a reply.

In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company was the largest multinational entity of its time, effectively a nation state with its own army and infrastructure. For us, Amazon is the latter day Dutch East India Company — as we say, it’s the same colonisers, just with different ships.

So last week, we went to bang on Amazon’s front door. Our allies in the US — from Puget Sound Sage, Our Revolution, the Athena Coalition, and Progressive International — handed in our petition, signed by 75,000 people, to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy at the corporation’s Seattle headquarters. Sasha LaPointe, an indigenous author, poet and artist from the Upper Skagit and Nooksack Indian Tribe, led the handover in an act of transnational indigenous solidarity.

And on Black Friday, 25 November 2022, we joined workers, climate campaigners and citizens across the world going on strike, protesting and taking action to Make Amazon Pay. As part of this powerful coalition rising on every continent to challenge Amazon’s abuses. Uniting our struggles and working together is the only way we will defeat the ersatz 21st century East India Company.

Cheryl Damon is a Cape Town-based Indigenous author with special interests in oral history, story-telling and observing people. She is active in the Liesbeek Action Campaign.

Photo: Liesbeek Action Campaign

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