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Native peoples challenge Amazon in South Africa

"Hands off our land". "Indigenous land is not for sale." “People, not profits”. A handful of people, some disguised as Jeff Bezos, others dressed in skins, display signs on the steps of the Western Cape High Court in Cape Town, South Africa.


It is the end of January this year and the demonstrators seen in the video contest the $ 310 million real estate project approved a year earlier by the city administration, which involves the construction of a residential and commercial center on a green area at the confluence of the Black and Liesbeek rivers, in the Observatory district. The highlight of The River Club project are the 70,000 square meters of offices of Amazon, the American home delivery giant, which intends to establish its African headquarters in Cape Town, with the promise of creating 19,000 new jobs.


The mobilization of the representatives of the indigenous communities and the inhabitants of the neighborhood started immediately to stop the construction site. In addition to environmental concerns - the plain adjacent to the Liesbeek River is useful for containing floods - there are also considerations on the historical value of those lands which, as Onke Ngcuka writes on the Daily Maverick website, have become a ritual and spiritual connection space for the descendants of the first peoples, Khoi and San, who inhabited this part of Africa.


It is recognized that at that point, in 1510, the Khoikhoi warriors fought a hard and victorious battle against the Portuguese invaders led by the commander Francisco de Almeida. The site has become a symbol of resistance. "For us it is the epicenter of resistance to colonialism," Tauriq Jenkins, head of the Goring icon khoi khoin indigenous traditional council, one of the organizations representing the rights of native peoples, told Reuters. Jenkins' group and the Observatory civic organization were heard in court at the end of January because they ask to stop the project which, in addition to the problems already mentioned, according to some was approved in an opaque way, against the opinion of the environmental management department. of the city. The verdict, entrusted to judge Patricia Goliath, is expected in days.


The advance of Amazon


Real estate company Liesbeek leisure properties trust and the Cape Town administration insisted on community benefits: lots of new jobs, in a country where the unemployment rate was close to 35 percent last year, and the promise of making the city a reference point for new technologies. If the project was blocked, they warn, Amazon could move to another place.

Jeff Bezos' company set foot in South Africa in the early 2000s, says the Rest of World website. Customers in South Africa and some neighboring countries can order products on Amazon, but in Africa the company's main activity is cloud services, developed on two campuses: the first was that of Cape Town, then one was born. in Johannesburg. In 2020, Amazon announced an expansion of these services (to which Microsoft and Huawei compete), with the hiring of 3,000 new employees. In the same years, the search for a new headquarters began. The strange thing, Rest of World points out, is that Amazon had indicated priorities in the search for its new headquarters, and among these was the fact that there were no problems with permits and authorizations on the land to be built. Instead, already at the time, the area of ​​The River Club project was subject to constraints due to its historical and cultural interest.


The doubt therefore remains as to how the choice of the place took place, especially since the company remains silent in the face of attempts to stop the construction site.


At the same time, the builders co-opted another association of descendants of indigenous peoples, the Western Cape first nations collective, which supports The River Club project because it has been promised a cultural center dedicated to their history and a garden of remembrance. Judge Goliath, after listening to the builders' reasons, commented: “On paper, the project is commendable. But will it be enough to satisfy all the groups of the first nations? ”.


Several times, during the three days of hearings in the Western Cape high court, the case of Shell's oil exploration off the Wild coast was recalled, blocked since a court ruled that the multinational had not clearly informed the communities. indigenous to the environmental consequences of hydrocarbon exploration.


“The similarities between the two cases concern consultations with communities that could be harmed,” explains journalist Onke Ngcuka, contacted by email. "These consultations are a crucial element in the granting of an environmental permit in South Africa. In the case of Shell, the company had not listened to coastal communities that have cultural and spiritual ties to the ocean. In the case of the Khoisan, Amazon thought it was okay because it had satisfied a part of them. But the support of one group does not necessarily imply the consent of the others ”.


"A victory against Amazon in South Africa would be an example for the whole world", writes in Al Jazeera Michael Kwet, a scholar of digital colonialism, very critical of the project and the ways in which the great technological giants spread their systems of exploitation of workers. "It would teach Amazon and other big techs an important lesson: that organized resistance can shut them down. If the activists succeed in driving Amazon out of Cape Town, it would be a victory for indigenous rights, for environmental sustainability and for the fight against digital colonialism ”.



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