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South African court halts construction on Amazon’s Africa headquarters

A judge ordered the developer to engage with local Indigenous groups.
Protests against the construction of the new Africa headquarters for Amazon, in Cape Town
Members of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council and other surrounding communities protest the construction of the new Africa headquarters for U.S. retail giant Amazon in Cape Town, South Africa, on Nov. 12.Shelley Christians / Reuters file

Amazon’s global expansion plans have hit a roadblock, after a judge in Cape Town, South Africa, ordered construction to stop on the company’s new regional headquarters until the developer consults with local Indigenous groups who say the land is sacred. 

The ruling represents a victory for activists who campaigned against Amazon’s growing presence in South Africa for years, often by aligning themselves with other international movements opposing the company. It is a sign of the backlash that Amazon is facing around the world as it tries to compete in new markets. 

“Just as South African peoples halted this mega-construction, so will warehouse workers dismantle Amazon’s abusive e-commerce machine, and activists end the conglomerate’s sponsorship of climate destruction,” Casper Gelderblom, an organizer with the activist group Progressive International, said in a statement.

Zach Goldsztejn, a spokesperson for Amazon, declined to comment on the record.

Amazon remains slated to be the primary tenant of the River Club, a $320 million mixed-use real estate development in Cape Town’s Observatory neighborhood, which will also include residential units, public green space and other amenities. Construction on the project began last year after it was approved by city officials.

But opponents have long argued that the development is being built on an important Indigenous historical site and the project should never have been authorized to move forward. In 1510, it was the location of a battle between Portuguese forces and a group of Khoi people, an event considered by some South Africans to be one of the earliest instances of Indigenous resistance to colonialism.

In August, the Observatory Civic Association, a local community group, and the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council filed a lawsuit with the provincial court asking it to halt work on the project while the government’s approval process could be reviewed.

“This matter ultimately concerns the rights of indigenous peoples,” Patricia Goliath, a judge serving on the Western Cape High Court, wrote in her Friday ruling. She said the developer, Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, had failed to engage in “proper consultation” with First Nations communities and that “construction should stop immediately.”

Goliath ordered the project could not move forward until the developer meaningfully engaged with all Indigenous groups. She also said Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust needed to wait for the court to review the rezoning and environmental authorizations it had already obtained.

Trace Venter, a spokesperson for Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, said it was “deeply disappointed” by the outcome and is “considering the legal avenues available to it in the circumstances.”

“Judge Goliath came through for the truth,” Leslie London, the chairperson of the Observatory Civic Association, said in an email. “It restores my faith in the constitution.”

FILE PHOTO: Contested land earmarked for a development which includes a new Africa headquarters for U.S. retail giant Amazon is seen alongside the Black River in Cape Town
Contested land earmarked for a development which includes a new Africa headquarters for Amazon is seen alongside the Black River in Cape Town, South Africa, on June 2, 2021.Mike Hutchings / Reuters file

Documents made public as part of the court case revealed Amazon had dubbed its future Africa headquarters “Project Zola.” Goliath noted in her ruling that the company “was consulted and accommodated in the design and layout of parts of the proposed development.”

Some Indigenous communities have voiced support for the project, including a group called the First Nations Collective that formed in 2019. It has argued that the developer already listened to the perspectives of Indigenous people by promising to include features honoring their culture, including a media center and garden. In a statement, the First Nations Collective said it was “studying” Goliath’s ruling and planned to file an appeal.

The development also had the backing of former Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato, who left office in October. He previously said the project would be a boost to the city’s economy, which has been plagued by high unemployment. A spokesperson for the current mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, did not respond to a request for comment.

The ruling is a setback for Amazon, whose involvement in the River Club project made headlines around the world. This is the second time in recent years that its plans to open a new office have become mired in controversy. In 2019, the tech giant pulled out of a new headquarters it said it would open in New York after receiving pushback from local activists and public officials.

Amazon first established a presence in South Africa in the early 2000s. In court documents, the company said it planned to eventually have up to 7,500 employees working at its new Cape Town offices, who would likely be employed in customer support, cloud computing and other divisions.