CAPE TOWN, South Africa—Five centuries ago, South Africa’s original inhabitants, the Indigenous Khoi and San people, won a great military victory against Portuguese explorers in the Battle of Salt River, near the Cape of Good Hope. It was the first instance of an anti-colonial struggle that would continue until the advent of the country’s democracy in 1994.
Another battle has been raging for several years at the very same location, today a genteel Cape Town neighborhood called Observatory, again pitting Khoi and San against another great Western power—the U.S. tech behemoth Amazon—but perhaps more importantly, turning members of South Africa’s most marginalized community against one another.
It has brought up sensitive questions over who gets to speak for whom, what is sacred, and how to commemorate injustice, while some argue for the need to modernize and improve the dire economic conditions that Indigenous communities face.
Amazon is in the midst of building its new $300 million Africa headquarters on the site of the historic battle, which in more recent years has been a neglected space occupied by a dilapidated golf course, parking lot, dump site, and a heavily polluted river.
Opponents of the project, a grouping called the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council (GKKITC), along with the local Observatory residents’ association, took the developers to court, arguing that the plans were an insult to their ancestors’ memory and painting their case as a righteous fight against what they say will be the erasure of history in favor of big business.
Most media coverage of the court case covered it in these simplistic terms, too.
But like everything in this deeply divided and unequal country, where cities such as Cape Town still bear the scars of apartheid spatial planning, when one takes a closer look, it’s not that simple. In fact, another large group of Khoi and San has been vocally supportive of the development.
There have now been months and months of court hearings and legal wrangling. Construction on the 14.7-hectare site started in 2021 but was halted briefly in March 2022, when a judge ruled in favor of the anti-development groups and granted them an injunction—or interdict, in local legal parlance.
The developer in charge of the project, the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLPT), appealed the interdict, warning that it could pull out of the project if things got too tied up in the courts—and that if it did, thousands of jobs stood to be lost.
However, after hearing the appeal in October, a new legal ruling by the Western Cape High Court on Nov. 8 rescinded the previous order that building work stop, and it looks as though construction on the Amazon headquarters will now be moving full steam ahead.
The developers said after the High Court ruling that it was a “major win for all Capetonians.” But the infighting among factions of the Indigenous community looks likely to continue, with members of the anti-development group telling Foreign Policy that the case is not over.
At the center of the dispute between the pro-development and anti-development Khoi and San groups are two larger-than-life personalities: Tauriq Jenkins, an actor and academic prone to quoting Shakespeare and talking postmodern theory who leads the GKKITC, and Chief Zenzile Khoisan, a poet and former journalist with a biting wit, who leads a large grouping of tribes and chiefs called the First Nations Collective.
The two have spent months trading barbs, labeling each other sellouts, calling into question each other’s right to speak for the First Nations people, and casting aspersions about financial motivations.
“Where we’re sitting here is a ground-zero precinct, an epicenter of where the original sin occurred in its first instance,” Jenkins said on a visit to the building site last year, where a faded sign at the entrance marks “The River Club,” once a leisure precinct for working-class white people in the 1930s and then a golf course in the 1990s.
The site sits close to a patch of swampy wetland in the shadow of Cape Town’s majestic Table Mountain. The area is also well situated as an Amazon hub as it’s close to two major highways and just 10 miles from the city’s international airport. As well as the cultural and historical arguments, some opponents of the development worry about building on a flood plain and other possible environmental damage, but the city of Cape Town and the provincial government have both given the project a firm thumbs-up.
In court recently, one of the lawyers for the city of Cape Town, Ron Paschke, said of the site: “The only tangible [heritage asset] is the river, which is polluted and concreted.”
But Jenkins wasn’t having it.
“The developer will say, ‘Oh, you know this was a golf course. It was already destroyed,’” Jenkins said. “This is a very flawed colonial way of addressing apartheid spatial planning. From the perspective of the Khoi and San, when an embodied entity has been … raped, does it then give permission to revictimize this entity?”
The verbose Khoisan, who relishes old-fashioned British expressions like “poppycock,” accuses Jenkins of being a “Johnny-come-lately” to Khoi and San politics, also taking a gibe at Jenkins’s profession as an actor.
“How do you do such dirty dancing? How do you play on two stages? Only an accomplished actor can do that,” said Khoisan, who wears a leopard’s tooth necklace and carries a traditional wooden staff of a chief. “Your final role is to play the role of traditional leader.”
On ordering the original interdict, the judge told the developers to engage in “meaningful consultation” with the Khoi and San groups that were still holding out. But LLPT said it had already held lengthy consultations with Indigenous communities—which Jenkins walked out of.
After taking into consideration the ideas of those who did attend, the development will be one of the only sites in the country to recognize what South Africa’s Indigenous peoples have been through, according to LLPT and the First Nations Collective.
It will contain a medicinal herb garden, a media center, and an amphitheater and have Indigenous symbolism included in the landscape design. Apart from the Amazon headquarters and other offices, some 60 percent of the area will be devoted to public green space and running and cycling paths. The company also says it will clean up the polluted river and that Khoi and San people are welcome to observe traditional ceremonies on the land.
The opponents of the project “have been unable to identify any aspects of Indigenous cultural life that they or any other party will no longer be able to enjoy, when the … golf course and tarmac are replaced with the development under construction,” said James Tannenberger, a spokesperson for LLPT and the CEO of the construction group Zenprop.
Additionally, the development will provide an estimated 6,000 direct and 19,000 indirect jobs, LLPT said, in a country ravaged by the aftereffects of the pandemic and where official unemployment is currently sitting at a staggering 33 percent. Of the some 6,000 jobs created during the construction period, 18 percent will be skilled labor, 66 percent semi-skilled, and another 18 percent low-skilled, the developer noted in a socioeconomic specialist study shared with Foreign Policy. The other estimated 19,000 will come from indirect job creation and spending induced by the project. Among those who will benefit from the job creation, proponents of the project say, are Khoi and San people themselves, some of whom are already employed on the construction site.
The First Nations Collective engaged with the developer and, having stipulated the ways in which the site must commemorate Indigenous people, is in favor of the development, with Khoisan saying that it could become a “world-class” heritage site and the first real acknowledgement of his people’s history and land theft from them in the Cape Town area. And it will bring jobs.
“Our people have had to endure intense marginalization in this area and have been extremely hard-hit by worsening economic conditions and the jobs bloodbath that has devastated our communities,” Khoisan said.
The Amazon headquarters “brings investment and relief to the city and the province,” he added. “It is outrageous that vexatious litigants are allowed to undermine the overwhelming majority just to satisfy their own selfish positions.”
LLPT argued in the study that “the construction sector typically benefits workers with a range of skill levels but particularly semi- and low-skilled workers, i.e., the people most in need of employment, income, and skills development.” The developer said the average wage will be above the South African monthly minimum wage of 3,500 rand (about $200).
Once construction has been completed, 860 people will be directly employed at the site, including the office area, the hotel and gym, and maintenance. Individual businesses in the development will then likely employ some 5,000 office workers.
But Amazon is not known for being the best employer, with controversies over unionization and working hours having plagued the company in the United States, and Jenkins thinks the jobs argument doesn’t hold water.
“When you talk about who’s going to benefit from this thing, you’re talking about six months of lowest echelon jobs where people … are going to be wheelbarrowing concrete from A to B. … Where’s the dignity in that?” he said.
“We’re dealing with an all-white male board of the LLPT, which is [partnered with the] largest construction company in South Africa, Zenprop, which is in collusion with a city whose mayor is a white man … and a province whose premier is a white male, who is doing the bidding for the largest company on Earth—which is predominated by white men,” he added.
It’s an emotive issue, and at one point in the interview Jenkins has tears in his eyes.
Jenkins and one of his key allies, University of Cape Town professor Leslie London, don’t specify what exactly they would prefer in that space instead. Jenkins insists it must be up to the Khoi and San and that the land shouldn’t be privatized. He says the area “is currently being graded by the South African Heritage Resources Agency for National Heritage Status” and “it has been earmarked for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the San and Khoi.” He hopes it could form part of a government-approved “National Khoi and San Liberation and Resistance Route.”
Since its victorious 1510 encounter with the Portuguese, the Indigenous community’s fortunes have plunged, as has its population, and how many Khoi and San remain in South Africa is unclear. The two hunter-gatherer groups, descendants of some of the first peoples on Earth, occupied an area of southern Africa, including what is now Namibia, long before Europeans or even Bantu tribes—whose descendants account for most of South Africa’s Black population today—arrived.
The Khoi and San were derogatorily referred to as “bushmen” or “hottentots” by white settlers. Much like Indigenous communities in North America, in South Africa Khoi and San populations were decimated by smallpox, brought by Europeans, as well as successive wars. In Namibia, some 80,000 Indigenous people were killed in a genocide under German colonizers in the early 20th century.
Even since apartheid ended in 1994, the First Nations groups have remained marginalized and dispossessed. For three decades, they have been seeking acknowledgement that they are South Africa’s original inhabitants, to no avail. Their language, Khoekhoe, is not recognized among the 11 official languages in the country, and they are also classified as “coloured,” an apartheid-era racial categorization that they want changed. (The term refers to both the Cape Malay people, descended largely from Muslim slaves from Asia, and all other mixed-race populations in South Africa.)
A 2018 report by the South African Human Rights Commission gives no statistics but notes: “Globally, indigenous peoples are over-represented among the poor, and despite the absence of disaggregated data, the Khoi-San peoples are likely to constitute some of the poorest sectors in South African society. Although they are a minority and constitute a small portion of the poverty-ridden population in the country, their vulnerability is exacerbated by ongoing stigmatisation, lack of recognition and marginalisation, as well as the decline of their distinct cultures, languages and traditional way of life.”
The First Nations Collective leader, Khoisan, also objects to the fact that Jenkins’s ally London—who is white and a member of the Observatory residents’ group that is also fighting the development—is even involved, saying that he has no right to meddle in Indigenous decisions over the site and doesn’t consider the much-needed jobs it will bring.
Not one to pull his punches, Khoisan was scathing: “All of these pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing tenured recalcitrants from the academy … are people who cannot really feel the pain of somebody who’s at the mercy of the wind,” he said. “They feign solidarity with the poor while they sip their chardonnay.”
He thinks white people like London just don’t want the development in their area, which is near the university and has trendy cafes and cute terrace houses, saying that the civic group’s objections to the project are a “Nimby argument”—even though the developers predict it will cause local property values to rise.
London, however, says he is simply trying to right historic wrongs, as he knows he benefited from apartheid in the past, noting: “The fact that I’m white and I’m not of Khoi or San heritage is true, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t see where the injustice is being perpetrated.”
“Rich people are saying, ‘Oh, we’re creating jobs.’ They’re not doing it to create jobs—they’re doing it to make a very big profit,” London said.
But, Khoisan quipped, “the best thing that a white person can do who is the progeny of the ones who dispossessed us is to remain quiet,” adding that if London wants to right past wrongs, he could “give up his house and give up his tenured position at UCT and say, ‘I give my entire pension’” to the Khoi and San.
At the October appeal hearing, Jenkins struck a lonesome figure in court; the Observatory group had decided to sit that particular case out, London said, in order to conserve their limited funds to fight on further in the lawsuit.
This “is precisely the strategy of the developers—to litigate us to death,” London told Foreign Policy.
Jenkins’s credibility was also called into question during the latest hearings, with lawyers for the development arguing that he had misrepresented himself as leader of the GKKITC and bullied people into signing affidavits. Some of those who Jenkins had said backed him suddenly claimed that they never had and were in fact in favor of the development.
Asked about that surprising turn of events, Jenkins didn’t respond, but London said: “We hope the judges will see through the ambush being perpetrated on Tauriq and the GKKITC by a group seeking to stop the court case.” He added: “The fake faction who present themselves as the GKKITC are proxies for the developer,” referring to a group he contends has been created to cast doubt on Jenkins’s claim to leadership of the GKKITC.
But the High Court judges were scathing about Jenkins. On Nov. 8, they said he had committed fraud in the proceedings leading to the previous court interdict, when he pursued the application to stop the development on behalf of the GKKITC, when in actual fact the group did not oppose the development.
Jenkins blames Amazon for the sad war of words between the members of the Indigenous community, saying that it’s part of “the divide-and-conquer template that is often deployed by massive organizations moving into Indigenous terrain.”
In a stinging comparison, he likened Khoisan’s group of “acquiescent chiefs” to the local Black administrators under apartheid who backed the white government’s policies but always “had the top cars.” These chiefs were seen as collaborators with the white regime because they governed what were known as the homelands, or Bantustans, which the apartheid government claimed were autonomous but were never recognized diplomatically by any government other than South Africa’s.
Asked if he meant that the pro-development First Nations Collective was paid off to support the development, he demurred: “Whether they have been swayed, whether they’ve been paid, boils down to the same thing.”
London, meanwhile, points out that for standing his ground, Jenkins has received death threats.
Khoisan vehemently denies that his group has received any money and suggests it’s the anti-Amazon faction that is looking for a handout. London says that is a “complete fabrication.”
Jenkins, London, and the activists against the development say they are bitterly disappointed with the High Court ruling and are taking the case to the Supreme Court.
But according to Princess Chantal Revell, who is descended from an Indigenous royal house and is also part of the pro-Amazon First Nations Collective, there doesn’t need to be a stark dichotomy between development and cultural preservation; you can have both at the same time.
“Some people think when they seek out heritage, you should go back to wearing skins … and dance the whole day around the fire, whilst we’ve evolved 500 years since then,” said Revell, who has also spearheaded a high-profile effort for independent candidates to run for Parliament without any party affiliation.
“What do we give our children and their generation? Jobs are critical in preserving that heritage. … We can still have our cultural heritage but in a more modern form,” she said, adding that she believes the development will bring the youth pride about their past.
“They want to fetishize us,” Khoisan said, “but you’ll find we know how to use the Wi-Fi.”
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