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Infilling of the Black River angers activists

Construction workers moved in with front loaders, pushing soil into the Black River this week as part of the River Club redevelopment. The Western Cape High Court has yet to set a new date to hear an urgent application for an interdict against the development after a judge assigned to the case took ill. PICTURE: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Construction workers moved in with front loaders, pushing soil into the Black River this week as part of the River Club redevelopment. The Western Cape High Court has yet to set a new date to hear an urgent application for an interdict against the development after a judge assigned to the case took ill. PICTURE: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Dec 12, 2021

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THE First Nations Khoi people, civic and environmental organisations are calling on the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) to urgently declare a protection order against the River Club development.

This comes in the wake of the infilling of the Black River in Observatory, regarded as sacred by the indigenous Khoi and San people.

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Despite a pending court action, front loaders began pushing soil into the river this week as developers believed the redevelopment of the River Club had received a go ahead from the City and the provincial government.

The developers, the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLPT), said the construction work under way related to installation of platforms to “facilitate” the piling and concrete works for piers and abutments for the Berkley Road Bridge.

Once completed, the platforms would be removed and the area rehabilitated, said the developers.

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This has angered some groups who called it “incendiary” and an “affront” to all South Africans.

“We are deeply dismayed that the developers are pushing ahead despite the pending court action. The wetland at the confluence of the Liesbeek and Black rivers, with the small area of high ground occupied by the Royal Observatory and the River Club, amount to the last surviving elements of the historical landscape,” said Observatory Civic Association (OCA) Chairperson Leslie London.

SAHRA confirmed that it had received an application to provisionally protect the site and was in the process of considering the request.

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SAHRA manager for built environment, Ben Mwasinga, said the Two Rivers Urban Park, where the River Club site was located, was nominated for consideration as a national heritage site.

“We are currently assessing the site to determine its significance,” said Mwasinga.

The Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council expressed concern at the infilling of the river as the national heritage application was under way.

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Spokesperson Tauriq Jenkins said: “This embodies the utter disregard for the sacred sanctity of the collective memory of Africans in a precinct acknowledged by President Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet as part of the Khoi and San Liberation and Resistance Route.”

A tribunal set up by the provincial government to hear appeals by the City and the provincial Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning against the protection of the site said in its 2020 report “the fact that the area and resource has high heritage value and cultural significance is not disputed by any of the parties”.

It further noted that “during the hearings, the representatives of the Indigenous First Nations' community made a dramatic presentation accentuating the early history of the area, thus highlighting the heritage value of the area”.

“Consequently, the Appeal Tribunal found that there are deep sensitivities and significance of the wider heritage context and surroundings for the Indigenous First Nations' community and that they want to be heard on issues of conservation and protection of the heritage resources in the area but were denied their rights in the past.”

London said OCA was dismayed that the site was being treated as an “opportunity for infrastructure to support the commercialisation of what should be a national heritage site”.

OCA, the First Nations and environmental groups appealed to Amazon, who are the major tenant in the R4.6 billion mega project, to intervene.

However, ex Amazon boss Jeff Bezos did not respond to the correspondence.

London said they tried to bring to Bezos’s attention the “fact that the redevelopment was an ongoing dispossession" of indigenous people of land that started in the 17th Century by van Riebeek”.

“It's now continuing in the form of the destruction of cultural memory by powerful entities who do not listen. Same colonists, different ships,” said London.

The Western Cape High Court has yet to set a date for the case after the judge who was allocated it on November 24 and 25 took ill.

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