CAPE TOWN — On a strip of grassy land with open views of Cape Town’s picturesque Table Mountain, a group of yellow tractors cleared the ground for a new $300 million commercial and residential development that has sparked debate in South Africa, not only because of its location, but also for its anchor tenant: the tech giant Amazon.
The 37-acre site, at the confluence of two rivers, is widely believed to be in the area where native South Africans first fought colonial invaders, and some indigenous leaders view the development as a desecration of sacred land.
“A concrete block for an Amazon headquarters on this property is blatant and obscene,” said Tauriq Jenkins, who leads about two dozen indigenous groups that oppose 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, within sight of Amazon’s offices, a heritage center that tells the story of what is known by some as the First Nations people of the country.
Big corporations have “bottomed up the First Nations,” said Mr. Khoisan, his frail figure in the clearing swept by the wind. “So maybe Amazon is getting a bit of an education.”
Indigenous group leaders in South Africa are now embroiled in a brutal murderous battle over the future of a tract of land that sits in “one of the most historically significant sites in the country”, in the words of the agency in charge of the protection of heritage sites in the Western Cape Province.
The battle, also set in court, has been marked by insults, sellout accusations and deeper debates about who can claim authentic Indigenous heritage and speak on behalf of the community. South Africa’s indigenous communities have been decimated over the centuries by genocide and racist apartheid policies – so it is now often unclear who has the authority to speak on behalf of indigenous peoples.
The development of River Club, named after a golf club that used to be on the site, has also led to a split within the government. Some politicians have rallied behind the project – the city praised Amazon and chose Cape Town as “a base of operations on the African continent” as an economic boon. But officials from local environmental and heritage agencies have raised objections.
A judge in the Supreme Court of the Western Cape is expected to rule shortly on a petition filed by opponents alleging construction should be halted because development does not comply with heritage laws.
Critics also see a repetition of a familiar cycle: rich, and mostly white, interests get their way, while marginalized communities bicker among themselves. A provincial heritage tribunal criticized government leaders for adopting “the policy 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 evolved from prehistoric humans, said Michael De Jongh, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of South Africa. The Khoi settled in the country 2000 years ago. Then, starting about 800 years ago, black Africans migrated from elsewhere on the continent to South Africa.
Indigenous communities were broken up over many years, so being indigenous to South Africa became a matter of identifying with the culture and putting the traditions into practice, rather than proving one’s ancestry. In recent decades, a worldwide renewed interest in indigenous peoples has led to the formation of numerous groups in South Africa claiming First Nations heritage. Parliament passed a law in 2019 that allows indigenous groups to apply for official recognition. Many people have claimed to be First Nations leaders.
Mr Khoisan, 60, who identifies as head of the Gorinhaiqua Cultural Council, argued that Mr Jenkins was used to front the largely white, anti-development residents association of Observatory, the suburb that surrounds the site. He also said that Mr Jenkins was not actually indigenous, but from Zimbabwe, and that his allies were a small group of pretenders.
“Many of them are led by chefs with IQs well below room temperature,” Mr Khoisan said.
Mr Jenkins, 41, who identifies as the high commissioner of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, called Mr 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 in exile there. In turn, he accused Mr. Khoisan, a former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, from leading “a gang of leaders” who sow confusion over First Nations identities in order to aid the developer.
Indigenous leaders and researchers generally agree that somewhere near the development, which is tucked between the Zwarte and Liesbeek rivers, Khoi warriors repulsed an attack by Portuguese explorer Francisco d’Almeida in 1510. during the first resistance to colonialism in South Africa. The first colonial claim to land also occurred in this general area by the Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck in the late 17th century.
In 1939, the public railroad company completed construction of a white-only sports club for its employees at what is now the development site. In recent years it has had its own golf course and driving range.
Owner Liesbeek Leisure Property Trust announced at the end of 2015 that it was going to build a development there. Mr. Jenkins first expressed his concerns in a public meeting with the developer in early 2018.
“It is the silencing of a very powerful history that draws us to original sin,” said Mr. Jenkins on the development on land where colonizers attacked indigenous people.
In mid-2019, after provincial officials accused the developer of failing to properly consult the First Nations people, indigenous supporters of the development came forward publicly for the first time.
Mr. Khoisan and his allies formed a group called the First Nations Collective, which supported the development in public hearings and in newsletters.
They negotiated an agreement with the developer to build a First Nations heritage and media center managed 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 while the collective’s leaders had solid credentials, neither side can claim to represent all Khoi or other marginalized Indigenous communities.
But mr. Mellet was skeptical of the developer’s commitment to honoring Indigenous heritage, calling it a “gate opening exercise” that can be abandoned.
Jody Aufrichtig, one of the developers, said he had tried to work with indigenous people from the start of the project. As evidence, he provided an August 2016 email from Ron Martin, a Khoi leader and heritage expert, in which Mr. Martin thanked Mr. Aufrichtig for contacting First Nations people, and offered to provide consultancy services for Rs 22,700 ( about $1,500).
Mr Martin said in an interview that he never did the consultancy work and received no payment from Mr Aufrichtig.
“Any conclusion that we as a collective or Khoi people as a whole have sold their souls to a development for eight pieces of silver is ludicrous,” he said. “We are here for a much, much bigger thing. It is to preserve the heritage story of the Khoi and San people.”
Amazon, which has three data centers in the Cape Town region, has been remarkably quiet as the controversy swirls, refusing to comment for this or other news outlets.
Cape Town’s Environmental Management Department appealed the approval of another agency, warning that the development “would pose significant cumulative negative environmental impacts and risks, in particular to flooding”.
And the provincial agency, Heritage Western Cape, argued that the development would jeopardize the site’s value as a sacred site for indigenous peoples.
As the debate continued, the developer warned city officials “that he could lose Amazon as an interested partner in the development,” said Marian Nieuwoudt, a Cape Town councilor. (The developer’s representative denied this in an interview.)
In the end, the provincial environment minister approved the project last February, arguing that the developers, who have modified the design more than 250 times, have done enough to reduce flood risk and increase the site’s heritage value. He also praised the development’s plan to convert the private golf club into largely public parkland. The then mayor of Cape Town signed the project last April.
James Vos, a councilor who oversees economic development, said of Amazon, “To have them land their headquarters here in Cape Town means the world.”
But reaching this point has eroded the longstanding struggle for the recognition of indigenous peoples, said Cecil le Fleur, the chairman of the Khoi and San National Council, which established the government more than 20 years ago to represent indigenous interests. He said he would not take a position on the development.
“I don’t feel happy watching our people get more and more divided,” he said.
Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting.