Frequently Asked Questions
1. "The river (Liesbeek) is in such a bad state that what the developers have done can only improve it"
The Liesbeek River runs for more than 8km through urban Cape Town. The last 800m of the River Course splits on either side of the River Club. What the developers plan to do with the last 800 metres is to bury the original river course (to the West and North of the site) under a swale and remove the concrete walls of the canalised portion of river to the East of the site. Deconcretising the current canal will create an artificial river bank that looks “natural”. While decanalising a river is good for riverine quality, it will do very little to improve the quality of the water coming from upstream. Moreover, turning a river into a swale is not rehabilitating a river. It is destroying a river. The developers recognised that the river to the west of the development is the last remnant of the original river course and considered the option of an island model, which rehabilitated that part of the river. But they rejected that option because they would have had to leave a 35m buffer from the river and could not squeeze 150 000 m of concrete onto the site. So, easier to bury the river.
Secondly, while the Liesbeek is not pristine at all, it is one of the least impacted of Cape Town’s urban waterways as contained in a 2020 report to the City of Cape Town. For example, Dissolved Oxygen (DO) is an essential component of healthy aquatic ecosystems and when lowered, indicates organic pollution. The report confirms that “… parts of the sub-catchment that include the Liesbeek River showed less impacted DO concentrations...”. The report also discusses bacterial contamination by E. Coli as a marker of water quality: “…the Liesbeek River reaches of the Lower Salt subcatchment have the least affected [of the] monitoring sites in this subcatchment (albeit still in a Poor condition).”
It is the Black River that is highly contaminated with highly impacted DO levels and elevated E Coli levels mostly due to the discharge into the river from the Athlone Waste Water Treatment Works and unsewered waste from poorly serviced informal settlements and backyard dwellers upstream. The development will do nothing to improve its state. In fact, the quality of water in the Black River may well decline because the City has written off part the development levy against the construction of the Berkely Road extension. That levy could have paid for upgrades to the Athlone Waste Water Treatment Works. The City’s engineers agreed to the development only if the development levy funded the required infrastructure. Instead, we are getting a road we didn’t ask for and the Black River pollution may well worsen with the development.
Thirdly, the world has recognised the critical role of preserving rivers for Climate Resilience. This development buries a river. In the words of Kevin Winter, Lead Researcher of the Future Water Institute, the Liesbeek is under siege. “It seems that not much has been learnt from 350 years of the development of the Liesbeek. Future generations will regret that the authorities and private developers did not recognise the need to make room for the river, value the ecological services of a river that will mitigate climate change and secure water resources in the future.”
2. The land around the River Club was so degraded and basically a rubbish dump, that the environmental argument is false.
The site was not a rubbish dump. It was a golf course, a conference centre and hosted a few small businesses. Whatever rubbish was on site was the result of human neglect and mismanagement. It is completely illogical to argue that the only way to deal with rubbish on a site is to turn it into a massive mixed-use development to host Amazon Web Services.
The LLPT like to refer to the fact that the site is infilled with builder’s rubble. If that is what they mean by rubbish dump, then the entire foreshore of the centre of Cape Town, including the land on which the Civic Centre stands, is a rubbish dump, since most of the Foreshore is land reclaimed from Table Bay using … builder’s rubble and other infill.
When the developers had to implement a faunal search and rescue operation prior to commencement of the development (mandated by law), they recovered more than 100 creatures in one week, including threatened western leopard toads and Cape dwarf chameleons that are rarely seen in urban areas along the river. The City of Cape Town Environmental Management department appealed the Environmental Authorisation because, amongst other reasons, the proposal did not “appropriately describe, or mitigate the high negative biodiversity impact or habitat loss of a high faunal sensitivity proclaimed Protected Area.”
The site is not dead, not a dump and not degraded. It was an ecosystem with substantial flora and fauna that required protection, not removal.
3. Why was there no heritage outcry when the golf club was on the land and operating?
The site has always held cultural memory for indigenous people. But as we know, during apartheid, indigenous people were excluded from decision-making. When the site was used as a driving range and the golf course put in place, there was no consultation put in place. The first proposal to create a protected park was consulted with a substantial group of invited interested parties but with limited participation from Indigenous groups. In 2002, when the Environmental Management Framework for the Two Rivers Urban Park was developed, the Heritage Research Report noted the site’s significance as a Historical Cultural Landscape and a policy was adopted in 2003 that firmly protected the entire TRUP as a preserved landscape with guidelines that strictly limit its use for new development. In 2015, a Design Team was appointed that included an independent Heritage Research Team and Sun Development to facilitate consultations that included a broad range of invited parties, including Indigenous Khoi and Nguni representatives. The strong consensus in 2016 was to retain the vision of a preserved park that is Environmentally sensitive and is a Significant Cultural Landscape Heritage Site. This all predated the public consultation process for the River Club redevelopment when the golf course was operating.
Moreover, it is also the case that Khoi groups had long proposed that the site be declared a heritage site and that they be allowed to ‘return to the land’. Khoi leaders speak about conducting ceremonies at the site but being chased away because it was now private property. Remember the fact that indigenous people’s history had been airbrushed out of textbooks and that for centuries colonialism and apartheid had damaged and tried to suppress Khoi and San peoples’ sense of belonging, their cultural traditions and their connection to the land and environment that had been the heart of their communities historically. So, to suggest an absence of early outcry implies something inauthentic about the current campaign is deeply problematic:
a) The use as a conference facility and a members-only golf course with restricted access to public was an arrangement sought by the leaseholders and approved by the City as a consent use. That decision was never consulted or supported by any of the parties opposing the development, including indigenous entities.
b) The first public opportunity to speak out about the River Club only emerged in 2016. Since then, there have been consistent voices questioning this development.
c) To say that an absence of an earlier campaign to recognise the site invalidates the current campaign ignores the racist exclusion that has silenced Khoi and San activists for centuries – an epistemicide that has attempted to destroy indigenous knowledge systems. Having silenced them for centuries, the same oppression is used to silence them now when they speak out now in their own voices.
d) It shifts the burden onto the indigenous actors and makes them to blame for not speaking out earlier. Why do we not ask why the beneficiaries of the private arrangements to set up a golf course on a heritage site did not recognise it earlier?
4. But the building is already half built, what point does it make to oppose it now?
The size of the current building is proportional to the harm to the cultural landscape created by the development, so, irrespective of the extent of the building, it is a violation of the intangible heritage of the site – a site all parties to the court case recognise as sacred.
If the Review finds that the approvals were unlawful, it can order the building be demolished. There is precedent for this in South Africa courts, where the Supreme Court of Appeal found in favour of a lower court decision that a large residence had to be demolished because it had been built unlawfully (Lester versus Ndlambe Municipality). The Court noted that “One is acutely aware of the financial calamity, inconvenience and disruption which the demolition of what is plainly an expansive, luxurious dwelling, and a primary residence to boot, would cause Lester. But the upholding of the doctrine of legality, a fundamental component of the rule of law, must inevitably trump such personal considerations…” What is unlawful must come down and the courts have ordered that in the past.
Even the City’s counsel noted in the court proceedings, appealing the interim interdict, that a final remedy, should the High Court find the approvals were unlawful, could include the demolition of the building.
The developers, of course, knew the risk they were taking and have been told that on four occasions. Our papers delivered on the 2nd August 2021, included the remedy that the land be returned to the state it was in when the court process was initiated.
So, given that the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) are busy with a process to evaluate the entire TRUP site for national heritage status, there is every reason to oppose the development now. Rather than an Amazon playgrounds, we could look forward to a national heritage site, an urban park, a place of reconciliation and a potential UNESCO site alongside the South Africa Astronomical Observatory, slated to be on UNESCO’s list.
5. What is the plan for the site if the development is stopped?
The site was intended to be part of an urban park. It will be graded as a heritage site. Once that is in place, a plan for how best it might commemorate the powerful and deep history of the site can be developed collaboratively by all stakeholders. A green space with some buildings is what the initial Phase I heritage assessment proposed and what the City Environmental Managers noted as more suitable when they appealed the Environmental Authorisation. There is no need for a dense commercial centre on the site. Other forms of development are possible.
6. But isn’t the development catering sufficiently for heritage concerns by providing for measures to affirm Khoi identity?
The developers have offered to provide for a cultural centre on the site, an indigenous garden, an amphitheatre for performances and iconography and place names consistent with Khoi culture. This has been welcomed by the City and the First Nations Collective as being affirmation of Khoi identity.
a) Most First Nation I&APs say that this kind of concession does not respect their culture nor recognise their living history and their connection to the site. Only the First Nations Collective, who speak about ‘an enclave’ are happy with such an arrangement. That is not surprising since they will benefit from any income generation to made from these activities because of the ‘Social Compact’ with the developers.
b) The idea of the cultural centre was not one proposed by any Khoi leaders. It was a proposal made by the developer to HWC in May 2019, even before the FNC was created. That the FNC accepted this proposal was part of the deal made to create the FNC, who have done nothing but support the developer in this matter since.
c) Heritage Western Cape noted that “a 'memorial'/ 'museum' and recreated river courses are inadequate in commemorating the significance of the site and appear to be designed to create meaning rather than attempt to enhance identified heritage significances.” The committee noted that “the site is of sufficient significance within itself and does not need to be imbued with meaning. The bulk and mass of the development proposal does not respond to the site as a living heritage.”
In the words of Danab Fick “It’s rare to find a confluence of rivers so the confluence of the Black and Liesbeek River is very important to our people. Sacred practices and healing ceremonies took place there because the river served a healing function for diseases and injuries… That is why the site is significant. In this specific site, you have both the view of the mountain and the view of the stars… What is happening now is that the Liesbeek river is being killed. Whenever you do anything to our rivers, we do not see a river as an object, we know the river is alive, it is a being. We feel what happens. It is like losing a mother…”
And Prince Titus of the Traditional Royal House of Nǁnǂe confirmed that “It is heart sore for us because we now see that the developer is putting our history in the grave. They are killing it. There will be nothing to show our children the place itself, where the most significant events happened. We do not regard any of the conditions to the respective authorisations to be sufficient for the purposes of safeguarding our intangible heritage associated with the site.”