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Amazon moving in on potential national heritage site

Provincial heritage council passes the buck to national body.

The Two Rivers Urban Park in which a new Amazon headquarters is to be built, is deemed by Heritage Western Cape to hold national heritage status, but the process of declaring it will take a year or more.

The emerged when the provincial and national heritage of the area surrounding the confluence of the Liesbeek and Black Rivers below Observatory, was discussed by the Heritage Western Cape’s grading council on 22 July 2021. 

The 240ha Two Rivers Urban Park (TRUP) encompasses the River Club, where a strongly opposed R4,5bn redevelopment was earlier this year given the go-ahead by City and provincial government authorities. 

TRUP is the site of the first colonial dispossession by the expansion of the Dutch East India Company. An application to have it declared a provincial heritage site was filed over a year ago by the Observatory Civic Association (OCA), the Goringhaicona Khoi-Khoin Traditional Council and the Two Rivers Urban Park Association (TRUPA). 

The outcome is particularly consequential given that the global Amazon company headed by space cowboy Jeff Bezos is to be the anchor tenant of the River Club development.

The meeting of Heritage Western Cape’s (HWC) grading committee to assess the heritage application was attended by the full HWC council, as well as interested and affected parties. In a surprising turn of events, it was recommended that TRUP be assessed for national heritage status by HWC’s national body, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). 

SAHRA heritage officer Heidi Weldon said she believed this was “a very fair recommendation” which was “well within the procedures of grading of heritage sites”.

Following the meeting, HWC CEO Michael Janse van Rensburg stated: “Based on discussions at various meetings and documents put forward in terms of the heritage significance for the TRUP area, and not withstanding that an application for the proposed nomination of the site for Grade I status is also currently submitted with SAHRA, HWC is of the strong opinion that the TRUP area is worthy of being further investigated for Grade I heritage status.”

Janse van Rensburg said the council would notify SAHRA of its opinion that the TRUP area should be assessed for Grade I (national) heritage status.

The Observatory Civic Association and Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council supported the recommendation, but said there was no reason HWC should not proceed with a parallel provincial heritage application.

Supreme High Commissioner of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, Tauriq Jenkins, said it was important for recognition of the significance of the site “to begin at home”. 

Jenkins said he was puzzled at the HWC’s decision not to act. 

HWC had invoked a two-year provisional protection of the River Club site within TRUP from 2018 to 2020, precisely because of the threat of the River Club redevelopment. The protection was appealed by the property owners, City, and provincial government departments. It lapsed without the site’s heritage status being graded.  

“To choose to then escalate that responsibility solely on SAHRA without making a decision seems to hold in and of itself some contradiction,” said Jenkins.

Ground has already been broken for the Amazon development on the River Club site, although Weldon said national heritage status for TRUP would mean any “development, changes, excavations” would require “necessary permits” from the national authority.

A Heritage Impact Assessment would be required before permits were granted, said Weldon. The HIA “does not necessarily prohibit development, but rather guides the development to ensure the heritage values are sustained”. 

“The case will need to be assessed and a determination made from there.” 

She said declaration of a national heritage site would take “no less than nine to 12 months”, but some declarations “have taken a few years due to various complexities”. 

“I would imagine that considering the Two Rivers site, this is likely to be quite an extensive process and may take a little longer than is expected,” said Weldon.

In the meantime, earthmoving equipment has been installed at the River Club site, with nothing to stop the site owners, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, and Zenprop, from filling in what is a floodplain, and turning the original Liesbeek River channel into a swale. 

Attorney Nicholas Smith, who represented River Club owners Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust at the HWC grading council meeting, was not available for comment.

“That the developers are pursuing their development despite the fact that land should be part of a heritage precinct flies in the face of our constitutional protections of human rights and heritage,”said Observatory Civic Association chair Leslie London  

The Observatory Civic Association was instituting a High Court challenge to the City and provincial governments’ decisions permitting the development to go ahead, said London.

“The OCA will be adding this perspective to our court action.”

Jenkins said the site was “an epicentre of liberation and resistance”.

“It’s where the sacred rivers and its embankments were occupied for the first time, which resulted in massacre, exile and genocide, which is still unrecognised. It’s of undeniable spiritual and heritage value to the San and Khoi as well as our collective memory as a country.”