Tycoon’s secret paradise

Brian Hayward

A SPECTACULAR section of prime beachfront land leased out by the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality in 2004 so it could be developed into an upmarket resort complete with five-star hotel and wellness spa, is instead being used as a private luxury haven by a multi-millionaire and his friends.

In the meantime, the rest of the once-popular municipal Van Stadens Resort – at the mouth of the Van Stadens River about 50km west of the city – stands derelict and mostly unused by the public.

The only significant money spent in the past five years has been on converting three adjoining chalets into a R4-million "temporary” beachfront home for wealthy businessman Kobus Smit.

Another chalet has been transformed into a smaller but equally upmarket holiday home for Smit’s business partner Mkhuseli Faku, the cousin of controversial former Nelson Mandela Bay executive mayor Nceba Faku.

Access to the chalets, which are on public land, is restricted with a sign warning they are private property.

Smit is a director of the firm Buhlebendalo, which in 2004 signed a lease agreement with the municipality during Nceba Faku’s tenure as mayor to develop the Van Stadens Beach Resort. The lease stipulated that by November 2007 the resort should be the region’s leading coastal accommodation establishment, boasting world-class caravan sites as well as "exclusive sea-facing chalets” – each with its own jacuzzi and private sea-facing deck – as well as a beachfront hotel and wellness spa. It was estimated at the time the upgrade would cost about R30-million.

But five years later the resort is slowly falling apart. While it still caters for day visitors because of its picturesque lagoon and coastline, at night the chalets – which cost up to R900 a night to rent – are deserted because of the poor condition of the accommodation and ablution blocks.

When a team from The Herald visited the resort this week, the chalets were empty with dirty floors and paint peeling off the walls, while the ablution facilities were in a state of disrepair and those which could be used were unsightly.

Although The Herald reporters, posing as tourists, were told by Smit’s wife Jacqueline and resort staff that the beach house was used by Nceba Faku and his family from time to time, Smit and Faku this week both denied it.

"I have last been there before I left the municipality in 2006,” Faku said, adding that he knew Smit. "I am definitely not using the house. It’s nonsense. I have no reason to lie in this (city). I am not corrupt. I have never been corrupt.”

Smit told The Herald this week the luxury chalets "are mine to do what I want with” and added he had spent R2-million on upgrading the rest of the resort after taking over the lease. He said while another R2-million general resort upgrade was imminent, the adjacent plush chalet was used by friend and business contact Mkhuseli Faku when he visited the region.

"It’s my land,” he said. "I am just living there temporarily while I build a bigger home nearby (on land adjoining the resort).”

He claimed the company had been given permission by the municipality to extend deadlines for the upgrade’s completion because the environmental impact assessment (EIA) had "taken some time”.

The municipality could neither confirm nor deny the claim this week. However, the Department of Environmental Affairs in Bhisho said no application to undertake an EIA had been received for the resort.

The Herald investigation into the resort has now prompted the municipality to launch its own investigation into whether the company’s lease should be cancelled.

"The matter of the validity of the agreement for Van Stadens Resort has been referred for a legal opinion,” said spokesman Kupido Baron. "Once this is received a report will be submitted to council and a way forward will be determined.”

A top municipal source said, on condition of anonymity, that officials were "in a catch-22” situation. If they cancelled the lease, it would show them up as having failed to keep track of the project. However extending the deadline for the upgrade would merely prolong the chance of any development, the source said.

Smit, who moved to the region from the Northern Cape in the mid-1990s, made his fortune from mining ventures. He also bought Knysna’s internationally renowned 150ha Featherbed Nature Reserve from celebrity mathematician William Smith last year, allegedly for a whopping R212-million. His co-director in Buhlebendalo Properties is Bay attorney Sivuyile Ntlabezo, a director at law firm Boqwana Loon and Connellan.

"Mkhuseli has a house there because he is financially involved in the project,” said Ntlabezo. "At this stage there are issues between us and the municipality relating to our site development plan. Our EIA will follow once we have clarity on the site development plan (from the municipality). We are still pursuing the original concept (design).”

While mayor, Nceba Faku gave the go-ahead for Buhlebendalo Properties to be granted the 40-year-lease – renewable for a further 40 years thereafter – to develop the Van Stadens Resort.

Additional reporting by Lee-Anne Butler and Guy Rogers