The Amazonification of the Liesbeek River Valley

9 MAY 2021 — 

It’s now no secret that Amazon are the driver behind the River Club development. Pro-development groups gush over the fact and welcome Amazon’s investment in Cape Town, but never stop to ask why Amazon has turned a sacred heritage site and environmentally sensitive floodplain into an investment opportunity when there are many other alternative sites in Cape Town. We are up against Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, as well as influential and powerful South African investors when we challenge this development. So, we need your help to raise funds for our court case and campaign – please help us fight this Goliath by donating to our cause.

We have twice written to Jeff Bezos and received no reply. We don’t know if he is misinformed or uninformed or if he prefers not to know. But it’s odd that a man who professes to believe that “Climate Change is the biggest threat to our planet” should support a development authorisation that the City’s Environmental Management Department believes “does not give due consideration to climate change impacts and resilience.” In fact, the City’s own environmental scientists point out that “the EA decision does not give sufficient weight to the environmental impacts that would result from the scale of development and infilling of the river corridor and floodplain associated with the development proposal, most of which is below the 1:10 year floodline. These significant impacts will result in future risks and costs, particularly in the context of Climate Change and the reduced role of the site as green infrastructure which supports a resilient future. The development proposal is also in conflict with historical planning for the area as predominantly open space and part of the coast-to-coast greenway.” They mention Climate Change concerns 26 times in their appeal against the Environmental Authorisation and state clearly that the authorisation does not align with the City of Cape Town Climate Change Policy.

So, why does Jeff Bezos, who is throwing billions from his wealth to support Climate Change advocacy groups, want to associate with this intrusive and unsustainable development?

We wouldn’t be the first to point out some contradictions here. Critics of billionaire philanthropists such as Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winner Takes All,” have argued that their talk of changing the world through elite philanthropy is a “fake change” intended to maintain the system generating their wealth whilst seeming to do good. The Verge reports that since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Bezos’ personal wealth has increased by more than $75 billion. We know that many other businesses were decimated by lockdowns whereas Amazon’s online business boomed. Amazon’s greenhouse gas emissions are enormous and have continued to grow, despite Bezos’ “passion” for climate action and a 2019 commitment from his company to rein in its climate pollution.

Perhaps that might explain the reason why Amazon’s role behind this River Club development was kept hush-hush, when documents released in the Environmental Authorisation process which showed the scale of Amazon’s proposed campus on the site and its impact on the environment were mysteriously removed from the Environmental Consultants’ website. We were told the removal was supposedly because they “included proprietary information” that was “not intended for the environmental application”. What exactly was ‘proprietary’ about Amazon’s plans is not clear and certainly not constitutional. It all smells very odd.

So, having tried to reason with Jeff Bezos’ twice, and being stonewalled, we have now written to Ms Mackenzie Scott, Bezos’ former wife and also now a billionaire philanthropist, in the hope she will talk some sense into Jeff.  I have pasted our letter below. If you have any way to alert her to the perfidy being perpetrated here in Cape Town by the company in which she still has considerable shareholding, please let her know.


An Open Letter to Ms Mackenzie Scott

Dear Ms Mackenzie Scott

I write to you as the chair of the Observatory Civic Association, a small community civic in Cape Town South Africa that prides itself on active citizenry towards civic democracy.

Our Civic, which has a long history of community activism, is currently partnered with more than 60 First Nation Khoi Indigenous organisations, NGOs and other Civic Associations to ensure that there is heritage protection of an environmentally sensitive and cultural significant piece of land between the Black and Liesbeek Rivers, known as the Two Rivers Urban Park. The River Club is a small part of the Two Rivers Urban Park on which private developers have proposed to develop a massive, dense mixed-use complex which will house the Africa Headquarters of Amazon. That Amazon wish to be associated with a development that is on a sacred floodplain, and which has met fierce opposition from Khoi first nation leaders (whilst finding some willing to support the development) as well as infill a flood plain in ways that contradict existing Climate Change resilience policies of the City, must surely be of deep concern to anyone who believes in a world where environmental protection, justice and heritage, particularly for First Nation groups, should be adequately considered in development decisions. I attach some information on a recent event on South African’s anniversary of our transition to democracy (recognised as Freedom Day) where a diverse group of organisation walked to commemorate Khoi history and oppose the River Club development.

We believe the entire process in which this development has unfolded has been problematic, and City Planners and other authorities have ignored key reasons why you should not be building 150 000 square metres of concrete on a sacred floodplain. The competent Heritage Authority for the Province turned down the application because the Heritage Impact Assessment failed to identify heritage indicators and simply retrofitted its HIA to allow this dense development without recognising the intangible heritage of this area – and area where the Khoi defeated the Portuguese colonial expedition more than 500 years ago, and where the first wars of resistance against Dutch land dispossession took place. The Open Space character of the site was identified as key to the intangible heritage of this site; yet the Environmental Authorities rode roughshod over this neglect of intangible heritage. As a result, the environmental authorisation for the development was described as illegal by the Heritage Authorities. Similarly, the environmental impacts did not include a Climate Change study and sought to minimise the impact of the development on flooding of the nearby area. The City’s own heritage and Environmental Management experts did not support the development, yet the City authorities were willing to approve the development based on promised economic developments.

 It is Amazon that is at the centre of this travesty. It’s 44m high buildings will dwarf any nearby structures including the South Africa Astronomical Observatory, a National Heritage Resources slated for nomination as a UNESCO Heritage site. The area is part of the National Khoisan Liberation Route, a presidential project which will affirm Khoi history and heritage. But once the excavations happen and the infill of land by 3 metres of additional soil is completed, along with the obliteration of the original course of the Liesbeek River, there will be no going back and Amazon will sit astride this destruction.  As stated by Tauriq Jenkins, the High Commissioner for the Goringhaicona Khoen-Khoi Indigenous Council, the development is “poison to our sacred confluence, poison to our fish, birdlife and animals, poison to the soul of this space. We say no to the concrete on the floodplain, the infill of the river, to the loss of memory to a mall with hotels. We will not bid the kingfisher farewell.

For that reason, the OCA and its partner organisations will be taking the matter to court, to turn back the permitting decisions.

Although we have written to Jeff Bezos twice to appeal to him, we have never received any reply. We can’t say that whether he is misinformed or unaware but we have tried out best to alert Amazon that this is not the site to destroy in order to create another mega-office complex cum commercial campus with 2000 parking bays. We appeal to you to intervene to bring Amazon to its senses.

And if you wish to assist our struggle for justice in the courts, we will welcome your financial assistance.

There is more information at the Observatory Civic Association Website and our petition with multiple updates. There has also been a vigorous debate in the press (for example, the decision being a slap in the face of indigenous people and various opinion pieces, including the one by a Khoi defender of the development whose Khoi group has been promised custodianship of part of the precinct and two responses in the journal New Agenda on pages 31 to 41 rebutting such misinformation.

We look forward to hearing back from you.

Yours sincerely

Leslie London