RIGHT OF REPLY | Leslie London: The River Club - Truth is biggest casualty in a propaganda war

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Professor Leslie London, seen here at the front of a group of civic and traditional leaders opposing the River Club development.
Professor Leslie London, seen here at the front of a group of civic and traditional leaders opposing the River Club development.
Steve Kretzmann

Chair of the Observatory Civic Association Leslie London disputes claims made by the  Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust over the River Club redevelopment in Cape Town, writing that truth is the casualty. 

There is a propaganda war taking place over the River Club redevelopment in Cape Town, and the truth is the casualty. Opponents of the 'redevelopment' are constantly being insulted by the developers in the media based on smears, made without any basis. We respond here with the facts.

Contrary to claims published on News24 by trustee and spokesperson for the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLPT) James Tannerberger, the land currently occupied by the River Club – slated for a massive 150 000 square metre development ­– is recognised as sacred not only by First Nation Indigenous Knowledge holders but by Heritage Western Cape (HWC) which stated in February 2020 that "it is a site which is recognised as a sacred place. The open, largely undeveloped floodplain is a tangible reminder of intangible heritage." Even the former Mayor, who opposes our interdict, acknowledged the site as sacred in his affidavit.

'High heritage value'

Heritage Appeal Tribunal noted in 2020 that "The fact that the area and resource has high heritage value and cultural significance is not disputed by any of the parties." Since the LLPT was a party at the proceeding of the Tribunal and did not dispute the high heritage value and cultural significance of the land then, it is Tannenberger who must explain why it is not sacred in 2021. 

Tannenberger also claims the land is not part of an ecologically sensitive wetland. Not true. The site lies at the confluence of two rivers and is regarded as ecologically sensitive by the City of Cape Town Environmental Management Department (EMD). In its appeal against the Environmental Authorisation, EMD emphasised "the ecological importance and sensitivity of the watercourses and wetlands of the River Club." Heritage experts have noted that the confluence of the Black and Liesbeek Rivers has special significance as this is "possibly the last untransformed wetland in the area." The River Club is, therefore, definitely located in the TRUP's sensitive wetland area. 

 READ | Court battle looms over R4 billion redevelopment of the River Club in Cape Town

The LLPT continues to dwell on the fact that the site has been infilled over time. While this is true, HWC noted that "the fact that the site has been considerably disturbed in the latter half of the 20th Century does not in any way take away the meaning of the site as a historic frontier … or its significance to the region."

From an ecological perspective, the site remained a functioning ecosystem supporting a variety of species. A faunal search and rescue required of the developers identified more than 100 creatures in one week, including two threatened species, which they had to relocate before commencing construction.

The City's EMD noted in their appeal against the development that "once the habitat of the Liesbeek River Conservation Area has been destroyed through infilling, there will be no movement of animals from there anymore" and that the development impact "essentially results in further degradation of this historic river channel."

While the existing river is poorly maintained by the City, it has still been able to support a plethora of animal, bird and aquatic life. To emphasise: It is neither defunct nor dead. And the argument that a swale (which will bury the river) could contribute to biodiversity preservation was dismissed by the City's EMD: "Infilling of the unlined/natural channel of the Liesbeek River will have significant negative impacts on the wetland habitat available for numerous bird species."

Part of a historical frontier 

The City's EMD further stated that the 'old Liesbeek River' provides a stormwater polishing function that was ignored in the approval decision.

Independent specialists from both the City's EMD and HWC therefore hold the opposite view to the specialists who were paid by the LLPT.

The developer's heritage consultants rated the significance of the land as 'low'. HWC's final comments rejected this view because the Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) failed to map the relevant heritage resources of the site and 'tailored' the assessment of significance to justify the bulk and massing of the development.

The HIA also failed to "assess the impact of the development on the most important heritage resource: The site's open, green qualities as a remnant of landscape that has considerable intangible historic and cultural heritage significance." Moreover, every historical account confirms that the land occupied by the River Club was part of a historical frontier. The importance of the land is reflected in multiple narratives of Khoi knowledge holders and heritage researchers. We invite readers to hear some of these narratives here, where Khoi leaders spoke to the heritage appeal tribunal in 2018 about why the open space of the riverine valley needs to be valued and protected.

READ | River Club development: UCT comes to defence of professor accused of racism by Khoi group

The HIA undertaken by specialists paid by the LLPT was extensively used by the developer to claim First Nation support. However, the consultant employed by the LLPT to undertake the assessment of the First Nations narrative was a founding member of the First Nations Collective. This entity is now opposing our court challenge to the development. The claim to independence on the part of LLPT's specialists cannot be supported.

The majority of Khoi and San groups opposing LLPT's development have made it clear that establishing a cultural centre or other concessions are not sufficient to fulfil the mandate to protect heritage of the site, particularly if it permits the wholesale destruction of the riverine valley. Moreover, as HWC indicated, "a 'memorial'/'museum' is inadequate in commemorating the significance of the site and appears to be designed to create meaning rather than attempt to enhance identified heritage significances." We agree with HWC that the "site is of sufficient significance within itself and does not need to be imbued with meaning" and that the development proposal "does not respond to the site as a living heritage." 

Overstated benefits 

The developers wildly overstate the employment creation and housing benefits. The development will create 860 permanent jobs and about 6000 jobs during the construction phase only. Any development of this size will generate jobs. Amazon, who has chosen to build its African headquarters here, could have chosen any of the other five sites initially shortlisted, and the development would have created as many jobs elsewhere without building on a flood plain that is sacred to Khoi groups.

The development will provide only 20% affordable housing in a footprint of which only 20% is accommodation – meaning 4% of the site. The late head of Urban Planning at UCT and recognised expert Professor Vanessa Watson noted that it was likely to result in a small number of tiny units, and the contribution to redress of Cape Town's socio-economic disparities is a 'drop in the ocean'. 

Opponents to the development are not a small group, despite Tannenberger's repeated assertion of this.

More than 57000 + people have signed a petition opposing the development. On our Liesbeek Action Campaign website are letters of support from 24 academics and organisations, including environmental NGOs, faith-based networks and human rights bodies. Multiple Khoi groups are opposing the development, including 11 traditional councils and further Khoi revivalist entities, all listed in the affidavits of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Traditional Indigenous Council High Commissioner, Tauriq Jenkins. Moreover, more than 60 First Nation entities, civic associations and NGOs supported the application to grade the TRUP, including the River Club, for provincial heritage status.

We are, therefore, not a small group.

Lastly, Tannenberger is making up stories to imply we are late in opposing the matter in court.

The appeal against the site's Rezoning was rejected on the 19 April. The Observatory Civic Association (OCA) appealed the Water Use License, and the LLPT secured the intervention of the Minister to lift the suspension of the disputed License on 21 July. The LLPT obtained building plan approval from the City on 22 July. The OCA lodged its Notice of Motion on 2 August. That is precisely seven working days later. Far from approaching the courts five and a half months late, we have done our level best to exhaust all possible remedies before taking legal action.

If the LLPT is serious about recognising our country's heritage and history, it should assist the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA) to complete its assessment for National Heritage grading of the site and cease it construction forthwith.

- Leslie London is Chair of the Observatory Civic Association.

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