Smoke curls into the air, a drum beats, the dance begins, a chant is raised. Ten metres away, cars howl past on a busy road, drivers unaware of the sacred ritual taking place in the centre of a bustling South African city.
Francisco Mackenzie, a chief of the Cochoqua community of the Khoi people, talks of ancient beliefs and battles five centuries ago, against invaders from overseas. He points to the iconic skyline of Table Mountain, and then to a nearby building site.
“This is where we come to venerate our ancestors and the great spirit creator and to renew our nation’s ties. That is where the first battle of resistance took place. But money is always disrespectful of nature, traditions and culture,” he told the Guardian.
The money in question are the potential profits to be made from a 15-hectare (37-acre) site in Cape Town’s Observatory neighbourhood that is being turned into a complex that will house homes, shops, a hotel, conference centre and businesses. By far the most important tenant at the £200m project will be Amazon, which hopes to base its expanding operations in Africa there.
For now cranes and bulldozers are still. Earlier this month, a court in Cape Town upheld a judgment in March which stopped work on the sprawling complex until further consultations had taken place with heritage groups representing some Indigenous communities.
“It is another vindication,” said Tauriq Jenkins, an activist and member of the Goringhaicona Khoena council, as he watched the ceremony begin. “It will [help] dispel the lies and disinformation that have been generated against our claims. It’s a victory for the Sān and Khoi, our heritage and environment and for restorative justice.”
But the story of the development is less clear than it might look, pitting different visions of South Africa’s future against one another and causing a bitter row within the communities of the Khoi and the Sān peoples, who were the earliest inhabitants of the country.
Those opposed to the project say the site is a place of worship for both the Sān, who roamed as hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years, and the Khoi, who joined them as pastoralists more than 2,000 years ago. Both were forced off the land by invading Dutch with huge numbers dying of starvation, disease or enslaved.
Campaigners say the construction site is at the confluence of two sacred rivers and on land seized by the Dutch East India Company, a powerful trading company run by wealthy merchants in the Netherlands and often seen as the first modern multinational, in 1657. They make the obvious comparison to the present day.
“Back then they was the largest corporate entity on the planet, and they came and took this land … History is repeating itself,” Jenkins said.
Others, however, including several established Khoi and Sān community organisations, do not see rapacious corporate raiders but a chance to attract much-needed foreign investment to South Africa and to focus attention on the grievances of a historically marginalised minority in the country.
A coalition of Indigenous groups calling itself the Western Cape First Nations Collective has backed the project and engaged with the developers who have promised to include a “world class” heritage centre in the development, staffed and run by educators from the Khoi and Sān, which will celebrate their culture.
Zenzele Khoisan, the chairman of the collective, said the project offered “hope and future” to marginalised communities and dismissed critics as “johnny-come-latelies”.
“The confluence of the rivers and the battlefield are not where the development is being built. We have got something now that the South African government has never given us … This will be the launchpad for new and more intense battles,” Khoisan said.
He dismissed the claim that it would destroy important sites as “poppycock”.
South Africa’s flagging economy has been battered by Covid, corruption, power shortages and the failure of the ruling African National Congress to push through reforms. Unemployment reached a record 35.3% last year, and almost two-thirds of young people lack jobs. Local authorities backed the development, arguing that it would regenerate a swath of Cape Town.
The site area was previously home to a golf driving range and bar, built over an infill site for industrial and railway refuse, next to the confluence of the two now heavily polluted, canalised rivers.
James Tannenberger, a spokesperson for the developers, said the recent court judgment would deprive the broader community around the site of “significant socio-economic and environmental benefits” such as subsidised housing, upgrades to roads, parks and gardens as well as up to 19,000 jobs.
Land, its history and its ownership are fraught issues in South Africa, where memories of forced removals and segregation remain fresh nearly three decades after the end of apartheid.
Ciraj Rassool, a history professor at the University of Western Cape, said South Africa’s existing protection of sites was flawed as it framed heritage as something to be opposed to development. “The current legislation can’t really deal with an argument about history. There is a bias towards architecture and artefacts but here you have the meaning of a landscape,” Rassool said.
Judge Patricia Goliath said her ruling should not be understood as a criticism of the development but that the core issue was there needed to be proper consultation before it could go ahead. Amazon representatives in the UK and the US declined to comment. The company already employs thousands of people in data hubs in Cape Town.
Jenkins and other campaigners are acutely aware that any victory could be temporary. “We’ve stopped this thing for now, but only for now,” he said.