JOHANNESBURG – A South African court has suspended construction work on a huge new business park that will house Amazon's Africa headquarters in Cape Town after a challenge by Indigenous groups who say the development will spoil an area that's sacred to them.
The First Nations Indigenous groups — whose ancestors are recognized as the first inhabitants of South Africa — have been working for years to permanently stop the $300 million River Club project. The development near the city's famed Table Mountain is set to put offices, shopping malls and housing on more than 37 acres of land that currently includes a wetlands area and a point where two rivers meet. Amazon is to be the main tenant, according to the developers and city officials.
But the First Nations groups say the area is the site of some of their people's earliest resistance against European colonizers in the 16th century and also has spiritual significance for them because of the meeting of the Liesbeek and Black rivers.
Last week's judgment by the Western Cape High Court put a halt on building work until there is proper consultation with the concerned Indigenous groups. The groups said Tuesday they will now push for the whole project to be scrapped.
“We are going to be launching a review of the entire development, including how the project was allowed to proceed against the City of Cape Town’s own environmental laws,” Tauriq Jenkins, spokesman for the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Traditional Indigenous Council, told The Associated Press.
Jenkins said the area was where Indigenous people in South Africa were also first forced off their land by colonizers and that “more assaults against the Indigenous people” by laying concrete over the site should not be allowed. The area was previously protected from development by being designated as an important heritage site, but that was overridden by Cape Town city officials.
Amazon has declined to comment on the project, which has been planned since 2016. But the online shopping giant's name was used by developers and city officials in consultations to trumpet the possible economic benefits and prestige it would bring the city.
City officials claimed the construction phase of the project would create more than 5,200 jobs, with 19,000 direct and indirect jobs created after that. They also argued in court that the development would improve biodiversity in the area, but a judge was not convinced.
“The court judgment was very clear that the economic benefit of the project does not trump the rights and heritage of the Indigenous people, which is what was supposed to be considered by the developers and the city,” Jenkins said.
In her judgment, Western Cape deputy judge president Patricia Goliath recognized the site’s links and significance to First Nations people.
“I am of the view that the fundamental right to culture and heritage of Indigenous groups ... are under threat in the absence of proper consultation, and that the construction of the River Club development should stop immediately, pending compliance with this fundamental requirement," she said.