While the details of the land-use planning decision to rezone the River Club land for development has yet to be dissected in the courtroom, what has become very clear is that the economic and political relations between the developers and their civil society opponents are highly unequal.
After walking along the Liesbeek River with Professor Leslie London, we stopped at the entrance to the River Club Centre in Observatory. We looked on to the remaining uncanalised section of the original river next to Liesbeek Parkway and discussed the mega-development taking place there.
London, the Observatory Civic Association (OCA) Chairperson and Professor of Public Health at the University of Cape Town, spoke about how the private developers of Amazon Corporation’s Africa Headquarters at the River Club site intended to “bury” the river by turning it into a swale, which is a covered grassy depression. This would enable the developers to circumvent the prohibition on building within 35 metres of a river.
London listed a number of other equally flawed aspects of this development, which, despite repeated claims to comply with environmental legislation, will subject the ecologically sensitive site, located within the Two Rivers Urban Park (Trup), to the infilling of a floodplain and the placing of 150,000 square metres of concrete structures on a relatively small site. In fact, the City of Cape Town’s own environmental scientists viewed this plan as extremely problematic to the extent they were prepared to appeal the environmental authorisation issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEA&DP).
Staring at the towering construction cranes in the distance, it seemed inconceivable that developers had been given the green light for a massive mixed-use development with Amazon as the anchor tenant. It also appeared that cultural heritage “best practice” had been compromised and circumvented by the developer’s plans to pave over land located at the confluence of the Liesbeek and Black Rivers, a place where the first Khoi colonial resistance occurred in 1510, followed later by the allocation of agricultural land to the first free burghers by Jan van Riebeeck.
Alongside his demanding academic commitments, Professor London, together with a number of other community activists, has spent the past few years fighting powerful private developers who have the backing of Jeff Bezos’s multibillion-dollar Amazon behemoth.
In a puzzling transaction, Prasa originally sold the land for a mere R12-million, and this was then sold on to the current owners for R100-million. It seems inconceivable that this prime piece of land, which is surrounded by the majestic Table Mountain and ecologically sensitive riverine system, will now become Amazon’s concrete jungle. Hopefully, at some point, these property transactions and urban planning decisions, procedures and processes, will be scrutinised by investigators and the courts.
Activists opposing the River Club development claim that the private developers have massive financial resources to “buy” heritage and environmental consultants who then produce the environmental and cultural heritage reports that are needed to get their plans approved. These activists also believe that the authorities have used their immense financial, administrative and political power to enable the development through the exercise of discretion in favour of the developers, interpretation of rules to suit the development, and by making common cause with the developers in opposing cultural heritage grading of the land.
For years, activists have vigorously opposed this mega-development in the heart of the Two Rivers Urban Park with its important historical, symbolic and cultural significance for the descendants of First Nations peoples.
While the details of the land-use planning decision to rezone the land for development have yet to be dissected in the courtroom, what has become very clear is that the economic and political relations between the developers and their civil society opponents are highly unequal. A small group, including activists such as Leslie London, Marc Turok and Tauriq Jenkins, as well as ordinary citizens, civic organisations and representatives of First Nations groups — have taken on the authorities and private developers, who are backed by Bezos’s extraordinarily powerful global corporation.
This David and Goliath narrative has of course played out for decades in many parts of the world where individual citizens, or small groups of environmental activists, have taken on polluting corporations such as Shell and Exxon Mobil. As far back as the early 1960s, the US environmental activist and nature writer, Rachel Carson, directly challenged chemical corporations in her devastating indictment of the health and environmental damage of pesticides such as DDT in her book Silent Spring (1962).
Similarly, the Oscar-winning film, Erin Brockovich, which is based on a real-life story, narrates an account of an environmental activist who, in the 1990s, litigated against Pacific Gas & Electric Company over the corporation’s contribution to cancer-related illnesses as a result of the contamination of underground water in California.
More recently, citizens and activists in a predominantly black and working-class neighbourhood in San Francisco confronted the US government and corporations over the nuclear radiation contamination at a naval shipyard in Bayview-Hunters Point, San Francisco.
Another example of such environmental activism closer to home is the well-known case of how Shell was forced to accept responsibility for oil spills and complicity with Nigerian military violence in the Ogoni region in the Niger Delta. This situation came into international visibility as a result of the courageous campaigns by Ogoni activists, including the late Ken Saro-Wiwa who was hanged by the Nigerian military regime.
Clearly, environmental activists all over the world are making progress in challenging corporations and governments over the environmental racism and health risks.
The asymmetry between corporations, governments and environmental activists is very visible in Cape Town, where small groups of civic activists and concerned citizens have in recent years fought environmentally damaging developments in the Philippi Horticultural Area, Princess Vlei and now the River Club. In these cases, the City of Cape Town has supported the private developers in the name of jobs, housing and investment.
Reading Crispian Olver’s 2019 A House Divided, it would seem that the City of Cape Town has, for a very long time, been “hardwired” to promote the economic interests of big investors and private developers. But is there something more to this? What else could be driving the City’s desire to promote private sector development above the protection of environmental resources and public interests?
Possible reasons for this partisanship could indeed be a belief that these developments provide much-needed investment and jobs. Another possible reason for bending over backwards to accommodate private developers could be the fantasy that developments such as the Amazon Corporation’s Africa Headquarters will promote Cape Town’s image as a cutting-edge, investment-friendly global city.
In certain respects, this would conform to global trends, for instance the construction of spectacular corporate buildings such as the Sony Centre and Daimler headquarters in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz following reunification in 1990. Yet, 20 years later, the tide has turned, and private developers in cities like Berlin are no longer given blank cheques to turn public land and green spaces into corporate concrete jungles. In Berlin, for example, the recent closing of the Tempelhof Airport led to contentious public debates about how to use the land, and private developers are by no means the victors in these ongoing battles waged by activists and ordinary citizens to retain public spaces and promote social housing.
It would seem that the City of Cape Town remains captured by self-defeating fantasies of high-tech urban development and cutting-edge innovation, symbolised by mega-corporations such as Amazon and Google. Yet, such fantasies are misplaced as corporations such as Amazon often manage to get tax breaks, rebates and “sweet deals”, and seldom invest in public infrastructure, social housing or provide long-term jobs for working-class people in cities such as Cape Town.
Drawing on the research of Science and Technology Studies scholars such as Stephen J Jackson, it would seem that city managers should be looking more towards the repair and maintenance of their cities, rather than attempting to mimic Silicon Valley-like urban design innovations. Jackson’s concept of “broken world thinking” encourages us to look beyond the fetishisation of the bright and shiny products of high-tech innovation, and focus instead on repairing broken public infrastructures and broken communities.
For instance, in a city like Cape Town, the need for the repair of the rail infrastructure is especially urgent. Similarly, rather than evicting the homeless from affluent middle-class areas such as Sea Point and Green Point, because they are an “eyesore”, the City of Cape Town should be dedicating more resources to fix the social and economic conditions that reproduce homelessness.
The University of Cape Town geographer Dr Suraya Scheba recently gave a seminar in which she discussed the “work of repair” done by occupiers of the formerly vacant Woodstock Hospital, which they renamed Cissie Gool House (CGH). Here a group of Reclaim the City activists and homeless people transformed run-down buildings into functional spaces for families to live in. Yet, instead of supporting this civil-society-driven initiative of repair and maintenance, many city officials and politicians seem determined to evict the occupants. This story of Cissie Gool House is symptomatic of a much wider failure of the City of Cape Town to prioritise public welfare and social housing over the interests of private developers. Yet the latter will always seek solutions that financially benefit themselves and their shareholders, rather than addressing the needs of the public, the urban poor, or the environment.
In an age of pandemics and catastrophic climate emergency, there is an urgent need for a decisive break from misguided fantasies of endless growth, unsustainable development, and corporate profit at all costs. Plans for Amazon-style concrete jungles and spectacular modernist high-rise office blocks in environmentally sensitive places, such as an urban park situated on a flood plain, need to be scrapped for sustainable development that concerns itself with the repair and maintenance of public infrastructures, ecologically fragile environments, and the social welfare of poor and working-class communities. Such developments should also protect, rather than undermine, the integrity of people’s histories and heritage — for future generations.
These are not radical or utopian ideas. Instead, they simply seek to promote more equal, spatially just, and sustainable societies. Unfortunately, observing the towering cranes and earthmoving machinery at the River Club construction site in Observatory, suggests that we are still living in an age of denial about the devastating social and environmental costs of unsustainable development. DM
Professor Steven Robins is with the Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch.