Why the River Club development is destructive

Photo courtesy of Trevor Lea

The River Club owner and developer Jody Aufrichtig has again published an opinion piece on the River Club development (Weekend Argus Nov 2nd) that misleads the public and obscures facts.  We beg to differ that the process of decision-making was comprehensive, open, and transparent, nor that it justifies the massively destructive impact of the development in an environmentally sensitive and heritage-rich site.

Firstly, the “extensive public engagements” regarding the rezoning application were neither extensive nor independent. The rezoning was advertised In September 2018 and that was the last opportunity the public had to comment. The developers changed the project substantially over 2 years and presented new information to the Municipal Planning Tribunal (MPT) that was not available to the public to review. The independence of the process must be in question, given that key information was withheld from the MPT and the fact that the developer’s heritage consultant was allowed to justify to both the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development and the MPT as to why Heritage Western Cape (HWC) was wrong when they said the developer’s heritage plans failed to comply with the law. It is bizarre to think that an applicant to a decision-making process should be entitled to have the final say in judging what is lawful or not. The process was thus far from independent.

In fact, the most detailed and independent analyses of heritage and environment considerations are provided by the City’s own Heritage and Environmental Management Department (EMD), which concluded that the development neither met the City’s policies on the environment, nor the heritage standards of the competent authority for heritage in the Western Cape, HWC.

That the current site is underutilized and unavailable to the public is only the result of public land zoned as Open Space being sold off to private interests in 2015 and speculatively proposed for a development unsuited to a floodplain.  The site could easily be developed as a park, reflecting accessible space for all Capetonians to enjoy, without seeking the billions of Rands in profits which the developers hope to extract from an inappropriate development requiring massive infill and destruction of the riverine open space.

International investment is certainly needed in South Africa but this particular site is one that needs protection as a heritage and environmental treasure, not as an ode to greed and profligate destruction of the environment.  It is well known that with the COVID epidemic, many offices building stand vacant, as result of which much less destructive options are available for businesses needing office space in Cape Town. Moreover, the investment by Amazon will happen whether it is at the River Club or at another site, since Amazon have indicated they want a corporate headquarters in Cape Town. It’s not the River Club that is bringing them to Cape Town.

The developers also continue to claim that they have ‘independent experts’ reviewing their reports. We would rather believe the experts who are not paid by the River Club – for example, from the City of Cape Town EMD. The developer’s claim that the naturalisation of the canalised Liesbeek course will restore the ecological function of the river ignores the fact that the canal is not the primary river. The canal was created by an apartheid authority in 1952 and no Khoi nations were ever consulted about the canalisation, just as they were not consulted when Transnet sold off spiritually important land to a private entity in 2015.

The existing Liesbeek river, core to the intangible heritage of the site, has been severely impacted by decades of neglect, including in the last few years by actions of the River Club itself. The Cape Argus reported on 16 September 2013 that the River Club, in remodelling the river bank, had ten large trucks illegally dump material in and along the Liesbeek (see the image above). This neglect allows the developer to claim the river is a gutter and can be infilled to facilitate the development. Yet the claim that the river is “hydraulically disconnected” is not a mysterious act of God but the direct result of human mistreatment of the river, including by the River Club. A study by Delft University researchers showed how a different approach could re-establish the original river as a liveable urban wetland, meaningful for both First Nation identity and for the environment, through flood attenuation, storm water mitigation, water quality amelioration and habitat provision for endangered floral and faunal species. The LLPT has full access to the report but ignored it.

The existing Liesbeek River, notwithstanding the extent to which parties have degraded it, holds critically important spiritual and environmental value. Yet the developers argue that because something is already neglected, it is acceptable to further destroy it. In a world where intangible heritage means something, this is unacceptable. Heritage Western Cape rejected the developer’s plans in February 2020, noting that the fact that the sense of place has already been impacted, “does not make it acceptable to destroy what remains.”

The LLPT is also misleading readers about climate change. In January 2020 the EMD stated firmly that “filling in a natural river course is not consistent with climate change resilience principles, nor the biodiversity strategy” which will “destroy a high faunal sensitivity conservation area by infilling a Western Leopard Toad breeding area.” This verdict could not be clearer.

The LLPT maintain they have solved the heritage problem by finding some Khoi groups to support them. Let’s be clear: the so-called ‘First Nations Collective’ supporting the development did not exist until the River Club were exposed at the Heritage Appeal Tribunal in 2018 as having failed to adequately consult First Nations. At the tribunal, First Nations were united in their anger and rejection of the River Club development. The so-called consultation process described by LLPT has been widely questioned – by HWC, the Ministerial Heritage Appeal Tribunal and by First Nations groups not co-opted by the developers. The City’s EMD noted in their comments on the rezoning that “the First Nations narrative appears not to be totally inclusive”.  That’s a very polite response to what the Goringhaicona, who have been subjected to vicious attacks and anonymous smear campaigns for opposing the development, call “an act of ethnocide and epistimicide” in their appeal against the rezoning. They are supported by a wide range of other First Nation groups steadfastly objecting to the development but ignored by the developers.

The developer claims that opposition to the development is limited to a small group of people in the Observatory Civic Association. We are comprised of more than 60 First Nations groups, civic associations and NGOs from across Cape Town with support from around 20,000 objectors.  We have never spoken for the First Nations who are more than able to do so for themselves and have done so, at some cost – being vilified, threatened and subject to anonymous defamatory emails for opposing this development.  If LLPT really wishes to celebrate our province’s rich history and heritage, it can recognise the intense importance of the river confluence and its open space as precious intangible heritage, slated for inclusion in the National Khoi and San Heritage Route as a national legacy project. That would really undo apartheid spatial planning.