CAPE TOWN, South Africa — On a swath of grassy land with an open view of this city’s picturesque Table Mountain, a squad of yellow tractors cleared the lot for a new $300 million commercial and residential development that has stirred up debate in South Africa not just for its location, but also for its anchor tenant: tech giant Amazon.
The 37-acre site, at the confluence of two rivers, is widely believed to lie in the area where Indigenous South Africans first fought colonial invaders, and some Indigenous leaders consider the development a desecration of sacred land.
“A concrete block for an Amazon headquarters on this terrain is egregious and obscene,” said Tauriq Jenkins, who leads about two dozen Indigenous groups opposed to 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, in plain view of Amazon’s offices, a heritage center telling the story of what are known by some as the country’s First Nations people.
Big corporations have “screwed over the First Nations,” said Khoisan, his slight frame buffeted by the wind in the clearing. “So maybe Amazon’s going to receive a bit of an education.”
Leaders of Indigenous groups in South Africa are now locked in a vicious internecine fight over the future of a patch of land that lies in “one of the single most historically significant sites in the country,” in the words of the agency charged with protecting heritage sites in Western Cape Province.
The battle, which is also playing out in court, has been marked by insults, accusations of selling out, and deeper debates about who can claim authentic Indigenous heritage and speak for the community. South Africa’s Indigenous communities were decimated over the centuries through genocide and the racist apartheid policy — so it is now often unclear who has the authority to speak for Indigenous people.
The River Club development, named after a golf club formerly on the site, has also caused a split within the government. Some politicians have rallied behind the project — the city hailed Amazon choosing Cape Town as “a base of operations on the African continent” as an economic boon. But officials with local environmental and heritage agencies have raised objections.
A judge in the Western Cape High Court is expected to issue a ruling soon on a petition filed by opponents, who argue that construction should be stopped because the development does not comply with heritage laws.
Critics also see a repeat of a familiar cycle: Wealthy, and mostly white, interests get their way, while marginalized communities are left bickering among themselves. A provincial heritage tribunal criticized government leaders for employing “the politics of ‘divide and rule.’”
Determining Indigenous identity is difficult in South Africa. Tens of thousands of years ago, a people now known as the San developed out of prehistoric people, said Michael De Jongh, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of South Africa. The Khoi settled in the country 2,000 years ago. Then, starting about 800 years ago, Black Africans from elsewhere on the continent migrated to South Africa.
Indigenous communities were broken up over many years, so to be Indigenous in South Africa became a matter of identifying with the culture and practicing the traditions, rather than proving one’s ancestry. In recent decades, a global resurgence of interest in Indigenous people helped prompt the formation of myriad groups in South Africa claiming First Nations heritage. Parliament passed a law in 2019 that will allow Indigenous groups to apply for official recognition. Many people have claimed to be First Nations leaders.
Khoisan, 60, who identifies as chief of the Gorinhaiqua Cultural Council, argued that Jenkins was being used as a frontman for the mostly white, anti-development residents’ association of Observatory, the suburb that surrounds the site. He also said that Jenkins was not actually Indigenous, but from Zimbabwe, and that his allies were a small group of “pretenders.”
“Many of them are led by chiefs with an IQ way below room temperature,” Khoisan said.
Jenkins, 41, who identifies as the high commissioner of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, called Khoisan’s description of him racist. He said he is South African and has been sworn in as an Indigenous leader but was born in Zimbabwe because his parents were activists living there in exile. In turn, he accused Khoisan, a former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, of leading “a crony group of chiefs” who are creating confusion about First Nations identity to help the developer.
Indigenous leaders and researchers generally agree that somewhere in the vicinity of the development, which is tucked between the Black and Liesbeek Rivers, Khoi warriors fought off an attack by Portuguese explorer Francisco d’Almeida in 1510 in the first resistance to colonialism in South Africa. The first colonial claim to land also occurred in this general area by Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck in the late 17th century.
In 1939, the public rail company finished building a whites-only sports club for its workers on what is now the development site. In recent years, it has been a private golf course and driving range.
The property owner, Liesbeek Leisure Property Trust, announced in late 2015 that it planned to build a development there. Jenkins first raised concern at a public meeting with the developer in early 2018.
“It’s a silencing of a very powerful history that draws us to the original sin,” Jenkins said of developing on land where colonizers attacked Indigenous people.
In late 2019, after provincial officials accused the developer of not properly consulting First Nations people, Indigenous supporters of the development emerged publicly for the first time.
Khoisan and his allies formed a group called the First Nations Collective, which supported the development at public hearings and in newsletters.
They negotiated an agreement with the developer to build a First Nations heritage and media center, operated by Indigenous people, as well as an amphitheater, medicinal garden and educational signage.
The developer said on its website that the collective represented “the vast majority of senior Khoi and San leaders,” and that the development had the support of “relevant” First Nations peoples.
Patric Tariq Mellet, a leading scholar on Indigenous South Africans, said in an email that although the leaders of the collective had solid credentials, neither side can claim to represent all of the Khoi or other marginalized Indigenous communities.
But Mellet was skeptical about the developer’s commitment to honor Indigenous heritage, calling it a “gate-opening exercise” that may be abandoned.
Jody Aufrichtig, one of the developers, said he had sought to work with Indigenous people from the project’s start. As proof, he provided an email from Ron Martin, a Khoi leader and heritage expert, from August 2016, in which Martin thanked Aufrichtig for engaging with First Nations people, and offered to provide consulting services for 22,700 rand (about $1,500).
Martin said in an interview that he never did the consulting work and has not received any payment from Aufrichtig.
“Any sort of inference that we as a collective or Khoi people as a whole have sold their souls to a development for eight pieces of silver, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “We are in this for a much, much bigger thing. It’s for conserving the heritage narrative of the Khoi and San people.”
Amazon, which has three data centers in the Cape Town area, has been conspicuously quiet as the controversy swirls, declining to comment for this or other news outlets’ coverage.
Cape Town’s environmental management department appealed the approval given by another agency, warning that the development carried “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 people.
As the debate dragged on, the developer warned city officials “that he may lose Amazon as an interested partner in the development,” said Marian Nieuwoudt, a Cape Town City Council member. (The developer’s representative denied this in an interview.)
Ultimately, the provincial minister for environmental affairs approved the project last February, arguing that the developers, who altered the design more than 250 times, did enough to mitigate flood risk and enhance the site’s heritage value. He also praised the development’s plan to convert the private golf club into mostly public park land. The then-mayor of Cape Town signed off on the project in April.
James Vos, a City Council member overseeing economic development, said of Amazon, “To have them land their headquarters here in Cape Town, it means the world.”
But getting to this point has tarnished the longtime struggle for Indigenous recognition, said Cecil le Fleur, chair of the National Khoi and San Council, which the government formed more than 20 years ago to represent Indigenous interests. He said he took no position on the development.
“I don’t feel happy when I see how our people get more and more divided,” he said.