On the east side of Cape Town’s Observatory neighborhood, the Liesbeek and Black rivers converge. According to locals, the area offers one of the best views of the city’s iconic mountains and is perhaps the only spot where Signal Hill, Lion’s Head, Devil’s Peak, and Table Mountain can be seen simultaneously. In the year 1510, it was approximately here that a group of Khoi successfully fought back against Portuguese forces, marking the first battle between indigenous people and Europeans in the region. The conflict is regarded by some as one of the earliest liberation and resistance struggles by indigenous communities in South Africa.
Today, the site is a construction zone and the future home of Amazon’s new Africa headquarters.
The tech giant is expected to be the anchor tenant of a controversial real estate development dubbed the River Club, which will also include housing units, public green space, and other amenities. The developer, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLPT), and Cape Town officials say the more than $310 million (4.6 billion rand) project will create thousands of jobs in a country beset by high unemployment, and help to promote the city as a hub for Africa’s growing technology industry.
But civic groups, environmental experts, and some indigenous communities argue the land holds both ecological and cultural significance and should be protected for future generations. “The terrain is sacrosanct,” said Tauriq Jenkins, the high commissioner for the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, which opposes the project. Jenkins wants the area, which was most recently occupied by a members-only club with a golf course, to be recognized as a World Heritage Site. ”The stakes are incredibly high, and as a number of chiefs have said, if you lose the river, you lose everything,” he said.
Environmental experts, including some officials from the City of Cape Town, have expressed concerns that the project doesn’t fully consider the potential impacts of climate change, especially since the plans include filling in parts of a floodplain. “I think the worst case scenario is that we have regular, very costly flooding, and someone will have to pay for that,” said Nick Fordyce, chairman of Friends of the Liesbeek, a nonprofit organization that works to conserve the river.
Cape Town authorities have already authorized the project to move forward, but opponents contend they didn’t adhere to established planning and environmental policies. “The development has been punctuated by all these irregularities,” said Leslie London, a public health professor at the University of Cape Town and the chairperson of the Observatory Civic Association, a local community organization that opposes the project.
London specifically points to the historical and environmental assessments the developer needed to obtain, which he says were both unfairly biased. (The mayor’s office has denied the allegations.)
Amazon has remained largely silent about its involvement in the River Club project, and little was previously known about how it became a tenant.
Now, newly public court documents suggest the site wasn’t a finalist for Amazon’s Cape Town office and may not have met requirements it initially laid out for the headquarters. The records, which include a request for information (RFI) that Amazon sent to prospective developers, also reveal new details about how the company thinks about its growing real estate empire, including how it takes inspiration from other tech offices like Google’s London quarters.
In response to a detailed list of questions, Amazon declined to comment on the record.
The documents are part of an application the Observatory Civic Association and Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council made to the provincial high court, asking for the River Club project to be halted while the government’s approval process can be reviewed. The case is still pending.
Amazon first established a footprint in South Africa in the early 2000s. While consumers in South Africa and nearby countries can place e-commerce orders from the company, Amazon’s business on the continent is largely focused on cloud computing. The company’s first satellite office in Cape Town worked on Elastic Compute Cloud, an important part of Amazon Web Services (AWS). Roughly a decade later, Amazon opened another campus in Johannesburg also focused on AWS.
In 2020, the company launched its first Africa data centers in Cape Town. A few months later, Amazon announced it was hiring an additional 3,000 people in South Africa to work in roles ranging from customer service to technical operations, bringing its total workforce in the country to 7,000.
Amazon began searching for a new office space in Cape Town — dubbed “Project Zola” — in 2018, according to the RFI. In the document, the company indicated that it was looking to consolidate its employees in the city into one or two campuses that could house up to 7,500 people over the next seven years.
According to the RFI, one of Amazon’s top priorities in choosing a developer and building site was ensuring that there was “a clear path to regulatory approvals.” But at the time, the River Club was under a two-year provisional protection order issued by the local heritage authority, which prevented any construction on the property from taking place. The protection order has since lapsed, and it’s unclear how the roadblock may have impacted Amazon’s selection of the site.
The high court documents include an affidavit from Derick Ambrose Henstra, the executive chairman of DHK Architects, a design studio that worked on several of the developer proposals submitted to Amazon. Henstra said the company put together a short list of five finalist sites for its Cape Town campus, and the River Club wasn’t one of them.
“When it was announced that the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust was the preferred bidder to construct the Amazon headquarters on the River Club site, I was very surprised,” Henstra wrote in the affidavit. “First because in my view that site is not appropriate for such a development, and second because proceeding with that site involved a much higher degree of risk than several of the other qualifying sites.” (A spokesperson for DHK architects confirmed Henstra’s account.)
Trace Venter, a spokesperson for LLPT, said the developer would respond to Henstra’s affidavit in court and called his account “inadmissible or irrelevant.” Venter also warned that “it would also most likely constitute a breach of confidentiality undertakings parties generally provide each other on matters of this nature.”
Amazon never formally announced it was building a new office in Cape Town. The news only came to light last year, as LLPT was in the process of obtaining a required environmental authorization from the government. The developer hired a consulting firm to help conduct the process, which put a series of documents about the River Club online for public review. One of them was a planning report that revealed the property was Amazon’s “preferred site” for its headquarters in Africa.
Though the planning report later disappeared from the internet, a copy was obtained by Rest of World. In one section, it notes that Amazon would provide a bus service to “a large portion of staff working at the Amazon campus,” since the majority don’t have cars and can’t easily walk to public bus stops or train stations. In its RFI, however, the tech giant said that it heavily favored building an office that would have access to transportation.
Venter, the spokesperson for LLPT, said it couldn’t comment on many of the details in the RFI and planning report because the developer was bound by “contractual and legislative confidentiality undertakings for all its developments.”
In a statement, Venter argued that a number of experts have concluded the project is sound. It’s “unfortunate that this small but vocal group of people who are unhappy that their opinions were validly dismissed by the competent authorities during the development approval processes are trying to discredit the legal process that culminated in the approval,” Venter said.
Cape Town officials have continued to defend the project, despite the ongoing disputes. In a press release, the mayor’s office said that it “will be a significant boost to the Cape Town economy” and create up to 19,000 indirect jobs. South Africa’s unemployment rate hit a record high of 34.4% in the second quarter of 2021, according to the country’s statistics authority, which began collecting the data in 2008.
“We are acutely aware of the need to balance investment and job creation, along with heritage and planning considerations,” Mayor Dan Plato said in the release. “It is clear that this development offers many economic, social and environmental benefits for the area.”
The developers have also garnered support from some members of South Africa’s indigenous communities who are part of a group called the Western Cape First Nations Collective. Zenzile Khoisan, a representative from the organization, said that Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust agreed to incorporate a number of features into the project honoring indigenous culture, including a garden, a media center, and an amphitheater. “They changed their original plans so that they could accommodate us,” he told Rest of World.
Khoisan argues that the project is a rare opportunity for indigenous people to build a home where their history and practices can be celebrated. “We need a space of indigenous anchorage,” he said. “That place will prevent us from ever being bludgeoned into silence.”
But Jenkins, from the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, maintains that the majority of Khoi and San are against the River Club project because it doesn’t honor the symbiotic relationship indigenous people have with the environment. “How can an Amazon headquarters become a symbol of our heritage?” he said. “What we want is the whole heritage site.”