OCA should have been dismissed as troublemaking cranks

Ron McGregor, Observatory

In reference to your front page article published at the beginning of July. (“Final chapter in River Club battle,” Southern Suburbs Tatler, July 6)

Who or what is the Observatory Civic Association (OCA)? I am an Observatory resident and ratepayer, but I had never heard of this organisation until it suddenly burst upon the scene as an objector to the River Club development. It certainly does not represent the citizens of Observatory, despite its choice of name.

I have no idea how the citizens of Observatory feel about the River Club development. I, personally, don’t have a problem with it. But no one has ever conducted an effective poll. All we have is a group of self-important citizens who seem to have set themselves up as some kind of official body.

I’m also interested in how they identified the site as “sacred” to the First Nation. There was no writing, and no maps, before the Dutch arrived. How did the Observatory Civic Association manage to determine that the “sacred” site was exactly at the place where the development was planned?

If there was any sacred site at all, might it not have been a little way to the north, south, east or west? Should the OCA not have been aiming for the demolition of the office blocks along Liesbeek Parkway? Or laying claim to the railway yards in Maitland. How about the traffic lights on Station Road?

We, the public, along with qualified historians, have no certain knowledge of how this land was used in ancient times. The OCA (and its leaders) should have been dismissed as troublemaking cranks long before so much time and money was spent on trying to block this development.

OCA chairman Professor Leslie London responds:

The Observatory Civic Association was founded in 1985 and has a long history of representing the Observatory community in matters to do with planning decisions, liquor licences and other issues relevant to the local community. It has therefore neither “burst on the scene” nor has it set itself up “as some kind of official body”.

That is because the OCA is, in fact, registered with and is recognised by the City sub-council as a civic organisation and is registered as a public benefit organisation with the Department of Social Development.

OCA leaders were given awards by the mayor’s office for their civic leadership (in 2021), and the OCA was awarded acknowledgement by the Western Cape government (in 2018) as the most active conservation body in the Western Cape.

That Mr McGregor claims to have no knowledge of the OCA may reflect his own orientation rather than any lack of support from residents of Observatory.

The River Club site is of enormous heritage significance. This fact has been well documented:

In 2015, ACO and Associates conducted a study of the Two Rivers Urban Park (TRUP) for Heritage Western Cape and found that “…The present day wetland at the confluence of the Liesbeek and Black Rivers, with the small area of high ground occupied by the Royal Observatory and the River Club, amount to the last surviving elements of a [this] historical landscape.” The report recommended that the Liesbeek River, along with the remaining open land, the confluence and wetlands, should be declared a provincial heritage site.

Atwell and Jacobs confirmed this in their 2017 TRUP baseline study by recommending the memorialisation of the River Club site for its living memory and associational value.

Jim Hallinen, former City heritage official, did a recent report that confirmed that the triangle of land between the Liesbeek and the Black rivers was vitally important for the indigenous pastoralists seeking grazing for their cattle in pre-colonial times. All of these reports are available to anyone who wishes to read them.

And at the Heritage Appeal Tribunal in the course of 2018 to 2020, indigenous leaders articulated clearly that the site was of profound spiritual significance for them. This was confirmed in the final directive issued by the tribunal in April 2020, which recognised the site as being “of great spiritual significance for Indigenous First Nations’ people and communities…”

Even the proponents of the development have agreed the site is sacred. For example, the mayor, in his responding affidavit dated 24th August 2021 during court proceedings, commented that, “In indigenous cosmology and practice, land and the watercourses have a spiritual element. The subject property itself is regarded as sacred”, and he acknowledged that, “Sacred animals were hunted to extinction, or driven from the area, by European settlers.”

Moreover, a heritage consultant for the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust is on record at the Heritage Appeal Tribunal’s site visit in November 2018 as saying that, “There’s no contesting of the significance of the site. The site is enormously important.”

So, when Heritage Western Cape declared the environmental approval unlawful, they were doing so on the basis of ample evidence that the site is, indeed, sacred. This is not a fiction thought up by the OCA but a conclusion based on ample historical, anthropological, scientific and sociological evidence by heritage authorities, experts, historians and indigenous leaders.

If we are labelled troublemaking cranks for expecting our authorities to follow the law, then we are guilty as charged. But if we want a government that applies the law fairly and equally to all, and where decision-makers can be held accountable for unlawful decisions, then someone has to ask those difficult questions.