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Development of dodgy tricks at the River Club

A defamatory letter to author MacKenzie Scott, whose ex-husband was Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, was attached to a complaint recently sent to the BackaBuddy crowdfunding platform the Observatory Civic Association is using to raise funds for its legal challenge to the R4.5bn River Club development.

The Observatory Civic Association is one of a number of civic organisations, together with ten Khoi traditional houses and organisations, who have been opposing the proposed development of the River Club site on the banks of the Black and Liesbeek Rivers in Observatory.

The main grounds for their and other organisations’ opposition to the construction of a massive office, retail, and residential complex with eight-storey-high buildings and containing Amazon’s new African headquarters, is that it is being built on a floodplain, within the Two Rivers Urban Park which has been proclaimed as open space, and on land that is sacred to the indigenous inhabitants of the land, the Khoi.

In late 2019, a number of Khoi and San structures who organised themselves as the First Nations Collective, made a 180 degree turnaround and came out in support of the development. Thereafter, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust director Jody Aufrichtig announced that a first nations media centre, an indigenous garden, an amphitheatre for Khoi and San ceremonies, street names and first nations symbols would be accommodated in the development precinct.

The mixed-use development on a floodplain was given the all-clear on 20 April this year after the municipal planning tribunal overruled appeals against the rezoning and spatial development departures it had granted. This was despite the possibility of a flawed Environmental Authorisation granted by the provincial Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning in September last year, and objections on environmental grounds by the City’s own Environmental Management Department.

The Observatory Civic Association is in the process of approaching the Western Cape High Court for relief, as they believe there are sufficient legal grounds to challenge the City’s decision. To help fund the court challenge, they initiated a crowdfunding campaign on BackaBuddy, which has so far raised R95,000. They twice wrote to Bezos, urging him to withdraw Amazon as tenant of a development on a floodplain and sacred site. After receiving no response, wrote an open letter to Scott on 7 May, asking her to consider trying to persuade Bezos, or to help fund their legal challenge.

Defamatory dirt

On 1 June, London sent an email to Mother City News, stating that BackaBuddy had received a complaint about their campaign. Subsequently, London said correspondence with BackaBuddy revealed that First Nation’s Collective spokesperson Zenzile Khoisan had laid the complaint. Although the wording and nature of the complaint was not communicated, BackaBuddy sent London the letter that had been attached to Khoisan’s objection.

The attachment was an open letter to Scott written by Khoisan dated 14 May. The letter, which was a response to the Observatory Civic Association’s letter to Scott, was filled with bile directed at the Observatory Civic Association and London.

In the letter, Khoisan calls London “a colonial throwback”, “racist” and “deeply paternalistic”. Impugning the independence of the Khoi organisations opposing the River Club development, it claims London and “his crew” have “fought a campaign to make Observatory a place where Khoi descendants have no voice other than that which they can manipulate and where white people can walk their dogs along the banks of the Liesbeeck (sic) River and reflect grandly to the days of the colony”.

However, in numerous meetings attended by Mother City News, the Observatory Civic Association has never claimed to speak for the Khoi associations opposing the River Club development, and have in fact made it clear they cannot speak on their behalf.

Questions sent to BackaBuddy received no response, but London said after engaging with them, the campaign was reinstated.

When asked if he sent to the complaint to BackaBuddy, Khoisan said: “I did not send a complaint to BackaBuddy.”

He went on to admit he had authored the open letter to Scott and in a lengthy diatribe, repeatedly quoted the following paragraph contained in the letter: “Their perfidy is born out by the lies of the development plans on the Back a Buddy platform, through which they raise funds to fight us using development plans created on Minecraft that is laughable because it is so far from the truth.”

When pressed as to whether he had sent this as part of a complaint to BackaBuddy, he accused this journalist of printing lies, running a campaign for the Observatory Civic Association and of being “an arsehole”.

This emergence of this attack from the First Nations Collective came in the wake of a slanderous letter to London’s employers, UCT, as well as London’s academic colleagues, demanding they suspend him and investigate his activities in relation to the River Club. In Mother City News’s edition of 31 May to 24 June, 2021, we wrote how UCT came out in support of London, attesting to his integrity and supporting his freedom to be involved in civic action in the interests of social justice.

Mysterious manoeuvres in the media

On 9 June, an opinion piece penned by Robyn Simpson was published in Highbury Media’s online magazine Cape{town}Etc, which was highly critical of Amazon, calling it a global behemoth, displacing the River Club as a site of Khoi heritage.

Titled ‘Rifles vs Knobkerries’, the River Club development was described as “a tangible metaphor for the cancer that is globalisation consuming everything linked to that which is distinctly and historically African”.

“I am disgusted by the blatant disregard,” wrote Simpson, who is editor of the publication.

The article was taken down within 24 hours, with no correction or explanation to the readers. Mother City News in in possession of the original, captured in a web cache before it was removed. The article was five days later replaced with an exclusive interview with River Club developer Jody Aufrichtig in which he was given free reign to praise the development.

Carrying no byline, the article stated: “After meeting with Aufrichtig, it’s abundantly clear that heritage, historic restoration and cultural celebration lie at the core of the entire development.”

It provided no context to the opposition of the development, referring only to “detractors” who were either concerned that it would be “the next Canal Walk”, or were “crying environmental concerns” and sought no balancing views.

It is worth noting the chair of the municipal planning tribunal, David Daniels, in his celebratory approval of the developer’s rezoning and departure applications, likened it to Canal Walk, and that the City’s own Environmental Management Department lodged objections to the development.

This article was followed by another praise piece two days later, and a third on 24 June. None of the articles carried a byline, nor were they marked as advertising.

Questions sent to editor Robyn Simpson received no response.

An effigy stands on the bank of the original course of the Liesbeeck River, opposite the River Club. The developers plan to rehabilitate the canalised section of the river and fill in the original course and turn it into a swale.

History of River Club opposition

It was at and near the confluence of the Black and Liesbeek Rivers, where the River Club is situated, that the first act of colonial dispossession took place in South Africa, as the Dutch East India Company forced the Khoi from their traditional grazing lands and giving it to settler farmers. It is a strange twist of fate that Amazon are in essential ways, a modern version of the Dutch East India Company.

Civic opposition has dogged the development since the property owners and developers, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, first filed their intention to develop the land in 2016.

At the numerous required public participation processes, including those related to attempts to place the land under heritage protection, City and Provincial planning departments have been visibly supportive of, and arguably biased toward, the development.

No alterations to the plans, or accommodations within the development, were made in response to the sustained civic opposition.