When word got out in April that Amazon had set the ball rolling on a mega plan that would see the company launch a mammoth African headquarters in South Africa, it was embraced as big, generally good news.
The world’s most valuable tech company by revenue was finally set for the Africa challenge, it seemed.
For years, Amazon’s interaction with the African continent had been limited to Amazon Web Services (AWS; the cloud-computing business), a few thousand virtual customer service jobs, and an undocumented number of residents (in 17 African countries) ordering stuff online and paying huge delivery fees to have items shipped across oceans (typically from the U.S.) in a matter of several days.
Now, by announcing that the City of Cape Town had okayed a ZAR 4 Bn (USD 280.2 Mn) project, which has the retail giant, Amazon, at the centre of a 150,000 squared-metres space (of which 70,000 squared-metres is dedicated to Amazon), it seemed all but certain that the U.S. e-commerce giant was looking to expand in Africa, finally. And that speculation sure brought some excitement.
However, it appears not everyone is as enchanted about the proposed plans and Amazon suddenly finds itself embroiled in a dispute that is now in court.
The problem? Well, it has something to do with the location chosen for the development of the gigantic facility that would house Amazon. That location is a territory that is now under dispute.
It turns out the chosen location, at the confluence of two rivers, is the ancestral home to the earliest Khoi and San inhabitants in Southern Africa. And that area appears to be of historical importance to certain groups because of its cosmological, spiritual, and environmental significance to the indigenous groups.
History has it that South Africa’s indigenous Khoi and San population fought off a Portuguese attack over 500 years ago, in one of the first, and most successful, anti-colonial battles in Africa.
Now, it so happens that Amazon’s proposed African headquarters is being erected on the land that was the turf for those historical battles, and some descendants of the Khoi and San are pushing against the e-tailer’s plans.
As reported, rights groups last week filed an interdict at the Western Cape High Court to halt the nearly USD 300 Mn development which would include a hotel, residential units and retail offices including Amazon’s; billed to create 6,000 direct and 19,000 indirect jobs in unemployment-ridden South Africa.
It’s also been reported that 56,000 people have signed a petition opposing the construction plans on land, previously serving as a golf course and a bar, which community leaders say has archaeological value and should be made a heritage site.
In fact, a lot of history is tied to that site as it is a symbolic ground holding the ghosts of historical anti-colonial battles between the Khoi and the Portuguese; and between the Khoi and the Dutch. That land is also regarded as the grounds where slave trade picked up in South Africa and where the foundation for what became 46 years of apartheid white minority rule was laid.
Today, nearly three decades after the discontinuation of the apartheid regime, South Africa is still one of the world’s most unequal countries, and this has been identified as one of the factors behind the wanton violence and looting that engulf the country periodically.
One of the areas in which this huge inequality manifests in South Africa is land ownership – such that large expanses of private land remain under white ownership to this day.
This is despite the fact that there was a land dispossession campaign during the apartheid years that effectively drove black and mixed-race people away from certain areas and handed much of the lands to white folks at the time.
Many years after apartheid, South Africa’s white minority still own much of the country and thousands of land disputes remain unresolved in court. Hence, “land” is quite a sensitive and somewhat touchy subject in South Africa. That might say a thing or two about how deep the angst surrounding the Amazon development goes.
“You can trace the origins of our identity here, it is the footprint of our resistance against colonialism,” said Tauriq Jenkins, of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council (GKKITC), a Khoi group opposed to the project.
“This development shows a lack of sensitivity around our heritage,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
So far, Amazon has kept mum on the issue but the body overseeing the development, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLTP), maintains the project would create jobs, attract foreign investment and improve Cape Town’s quality of life.
LLTP has also talked up honouring the Khoi and San history by constructing a heritage garden, a media centre, an amphitheatre and naming internal roads after indigenous leaders.
Apart from that, there is a separate group of Khoi and San natives, known as the First Nations Collective, that have taken an opposing stance by backing the project and touting it as progress.
Nevertheless, a case has been submitted to the High Court by the GKKITC and the Observatory Civic Association, and the matter is set to be heard on August 16.
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