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Legal battle looms over Amazon’s proposed Cape Town HQ

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As a legal battle over Amazon’s proposed headquarters facility in Cape Town looms, public crowdfund donations pour in to support indigenous groups and environmentalists in their dispute against property group Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust and the City of Cape Town.

An online crowdfunding campaign to raise funds in preparation for the upcoming court battle has received donations amounting to R91 077, with an intention to raise around R250 000 to halt plans to turn the treasured piece of land into a commercial and residential development.

In April, the City of Cape Town approved the Cape Town-based R4.5 billion River Club Development – a 15-hectare parcel of land for development owned by the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, which will house the new Africa headquarters of US retail giant Amazon.

The city’s concept approval of the re-development of River Club came after the planned precinct received much opposition from environmentalists, the Khoi and the San groups, who had raised concerns that the new development would lead to the land losing its historical significance.

In a complaint lodged with the Planning Appeals Advisory Panel last year, the groups submitted a petition with 400 signatures, saying the construction on the floodplain between the Black and Liesbeek Rivers would result in increased risk of flooding and environmental exploitation.

They also argued the area must be preserved because it is at the junction of two rivers, making it ecologically significant.

However, their complaints fell on deaf ears after the City of Cape Town strongly stated thetreasured piece of land will unlock economic opportunities for SA, creating up to 19 000 indirect and induced jobs.

The crowdfunding campaign set up on the BackaBuddy platform is established by the Observatory community non-profit, the Observatory Civic Association, which represents the interests of residents and businesses in Observatory.

The organisation says it has partnered with over 60 Khoi groups, environmental NGOs and civic associations in opposition to what it calls “the destructive River Club development” and calls for heritage grading of the entire Two Rivers Urban Park.

“As a civic association that believes in the importance of social justice and democratic practice, we believe the future of the Liesbeek River and this site is important not just for the local community but, as a major heritage and environmental site threatened by inappropriate development, for all South Africans.

“We are a civic association that won recognition in the form of an award from DCAS [Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport] for being the most active heritage body in the Western Cape in 2019 and we believe heritage is something that should be enjoyed by all, not captured by a developer for their own interest,” notes a statement on the platform.

While Amazon Web Services has been present in SA since 2004, the new office is expected to be Amazon’s Africa headquarters, consisting of various business units.

‘Desecrating this terrain’

In its support of the commercial property project, the City of Cape Town had said the project would open a base of operations on the African continent, and together with other commercial tenants, Amazon would “significantly boost the economy and the people of Cape Town in the aftermath of the national COVID-19 lockdown”.

It further argued that one of the overarching goals of its Municipal Spatial Development Framework is sustainable development that balances ecological conservation and urban development.

This week, on Youth Day, hundreds of protesters gathered in Cape Town to raise awareness on the matter.

They marched between the central museum and the statue of 17th-century colonialist Jan van Riebeeck in opposition to the development.

In a protest video shared on Twitter, Tauriq Jenkins of the Goringhaicona Khoena Council, a Khoi traditional group, is heard saying: “Amazon has absolutely no right in terms of building what they are building, desecrating this terrain and its environment, and then wanting to say it’s in our name.”

Koebeaha Arendse, leader of Kai Korana Transfrontier Land and Heritage, a non-profit Khoi organisation, also comments in the video.

“Our liberty was not brought about by Amazon; our spaces of significance were brought upon by the blood of our ancestors and the sacrifices of Korana,” he says.

The City of Cape Town’s plan continues to draw criticism, with now over 55 200 objections from civil society, cultural and environmental rights groups opposing the plans in an online petition set up on Change.org.

“Experts have argued that any open land in the area should be considered archaeologically sensitive and should be screened/surveyed before any development takes place. The development puts150 000 square meters of building on a small 14.7-hectare site currently zoned for open space within the wider Two Rivers Urban Park.

“It [commercial development] will result in the destruction of a precious part of our city, aggravate flooding by infill of the flood valley and destroy the ability of the site to support recharge of the aquifer, critically needed to render Cape Town more resilient in the face of climate change and drought,” notes the petition.

Amazon SA did not respond to ITWeb’s questions on the matter.

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