Malik Dasoo - Who does the Amazon development really benefit?

Politicians enable the great harm and culturcide that this multinational causes, writes Malik Dasoo. Picture: Supplied

Politicians enable the great harm and culturcide that this multinational causes, writes Malik Dasoo. Picture: Supplied

Published May 13, 2024


By Malik Dasoo

It’s rare to find an issue that has the consensus of all of South Africa. However, this political cycle has revealed that of the many issues facing us, unemployment is once again coming out as a frontrunner. While there are many genuine attempts to offer solutions to this crisis, some opportunistic actors use it as a lobbying point to secure business.

So let’s look at the Amazon-linked development in Observatory, Cape Town. The R4.6 billion investment project makes claims of sizeable returns for the city, understandably scoring the support of its government and business interests alike.

In particular, let's look at what we stand to permanently lose by offering land to multibillion dollar international corporations, the recourse (or lack of it) offered to activists through the approval processes, and finally, let’s look at rethinking development and its incentive structures to serve the working class in an unemployment crisis.

Bulldozing history and identity

First, we have to remember that the primary intention of any development drive should be to deliver dignity to South Africans, especially the poor. People are inherently social, our sense of belonging and happiness are intrinsically tied to the provision of community and culture.

When these are removed, we enforce culturicide on people – the loss of identity, heritage and diversity.

Fighting for sacred land: The people taking on Amazon in Africa

I recently sat in the Bromwell residents’ Constitutional Court hearings against the City of Cape Town for unreasonable eviction orders. On the surface, this case repeats the pattern of working class people being forced out of their living spaces to make room for fancy new high rises accommodating a growingly affluent and increasingly international populace in the city centre. Acting Justice Chaskalson highlighted interesting reasons why this should be considered a special case – the residents currently living in Bromwell have parents who faced eviction orders under the apartheid government.

Thirty years later, those families are still being squeezed out, this time under the mandate of ‘urban renewal’. The tentacles of this programme have been systematically unfurled from the Cape Town CBD to Salt River, Bo Kaap to Observatory and Woodstock.

Each gentrification case is unique in its own right but one thing common in every eviction process is the loss of culture. These communities have history, relationships and heritage that makes them unique. When we remove them for a new high- revenue-creating machine, we lose it immediately and we do not get it back.

It is the removal of culture and identity that has long been deployed as a weapon of colonialism, and now neocolonialism, both here in this moment, and elsewhere on the planet stretching back as far as the accumulation of wealth and assets through dispossession of another.

Promises and lies

I have highlighted the Bromwell case to draw light to the plight of activists and the recourse they have in challenging these developments retroactively. The Amazon development in Observatory is a classic case of how little power is afforded to activists and how distorted approval procedures are. The burden of proof should be placed on the company by a capacitated and capable state, rather than on under-resourced activists after the fact.

To illustrate this point, consider the promise of the private developer of the ‘Amazon’ project, which says ‘they will create more than 5,200 construction jobs and approximately 19,000 employment opportunities.’ Anyone living in South Africa would rightly raise their eyebrows at such a claim when the situation is this dire, but what happens if/when they don’t deliver on this? What recourse do activists and socially conscious people have to hold them to account for a promise broken?

All a multinational has to say is that they’ll create a few thousand jobs and invest a few billion into your city and you’ll see mayors and premiers licking their lips at the prospect of growing their personal prestige within their political party. Along with that privilege comes the benefit of managing this financial relationship.

The multinationals’ claims of the benefits that will accrue for ordinary citizens are barely interrogated, if at all. And there is certainly no punishment for reneging on the promise.

Their other offers include ‘rehabilitating portions of the Liesbeek River, creating high-quality green open space and establishing heritage infrastructure with the First Nations Groups.’ When I think of these promises, I’m reminded of the lyrics in the Joni Mitchell song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, which go “They took all the trees, put 'em in a tree museum and they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em”.

There are strong arguments to suggest that the development of this building site, along with its anchor tenant, Amazon, will degrade the environment even further, destroy more local jobs than it creates and erode the culture and legacy of the First Nations’ People like the Goringhaicona. We stand to lose so much for such flimsy promises, which we have no power to control.

In law and philosophy, the burden of proof primarily lies on the claimant. If our government representatives followed this logic, they’d take Amazon to trial grilling them on each claim and how they’d come to each assertion. But a promise of jobs here, a few billion investment there and a weak and possibly compromised Heritage Impact Assessment gives the government all they want to provide Amazon all they need. It then falls to activists to challenge them on the grounds that our government does not.

Distorted power dynamics

Tauriq Jenkins brought a case before the Western Cape High Court stating that the proposed development site was of great historical value to the First Nations people, adding that it posed significant ecological danger to the Liesbeek and Black River confluence and its surrounding environment.

The interdict was approved on the grounds of the company not having done sufficient consultation with First Nations. This ruling was overturned in 2022 November, by the Supreme Court of Appeals, under highly questionable circumstances.

During the course of opposing the project, Tauriq has had death threats lodged against him by individuals who openly sided with the developer. In a twist of events, some of the people he was given the right of attorney to represent had suddenly turned against him and cited bizarre claims of Tauriq not having followed due procedure in consultation.

Tauriq engaged in consultations with First Nations people for years, often at his own expense. It’s not a far-fetched claim to assert the private developer had paid off activists to turn against Tauriq – there were examples during protests outside the Western Cape High Court where a crowd supposedly in favour of the development did not know why they were there and where a prominent leader of the group could not answer very simple questions about the scenario, as is documented in the film ‘I am this Water’, which will be publicly available soon.

What then are activists supposed to do in the face of such distorted power dynamics? Tauriq could not even afford an attorney to represent him in the appeals case.

Before we have nothing to lose

Socially-conscious people are left with so little to fight behemoths who, in any case, line their pockets with huge profits and leave pittances in terms of initial investment and low-paying jobs behind. But I am not one to complain and not offer solutions. What then is the responsibility of the state when they are in the midst of an unemployment crisis with seemingly few options to create jobs?

Although it was ultimately an ill-fated and disorganised attempt to launch a political party, I was inspired by some of Change Starts Now’s Change Charter. It treats the unemployment crisis like a war-time situation which requires the commensurate response. It calls for a relatively modest and temporary wealth tax to raise enough funds to invest in things like human infrastructure, public transport, water and sewage and social housing among others.

It was inspired, in part, by the Marshall plan, which created economic recovery post WWII. These public-directed investments create thousands of jobs. Such a framework has an important principle built into it – make the rich pay.

Therein lies the recourse for the socially conscious. As companies rake in billions of rands in profit but offer just a few jobs and a few million Rand in return, this holds them to account and uses their huge shoulders to carry the weight of real economic development and emancipation.

Our mining houses have been investing millions for years with devastatingly few binding social and environmental requirements. If this type of investment was in any way proportional to public wealth creation, we would not be in the state we’re in.

We need to challenge the likes of Amazon because we have so much to lose by allowing this form of development to continue unchallenged. If we don’t shift gears and understand development differently, we will be stuck in this loop indefinitely.

* Malik Dasoo is a researcher and a climate activist.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.