/ 26 January 2007

Did Rasool oil hospital deal?

The Dubai-based consortium that owns Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront offered the provincial government R1,1-billion for the adjacent site of Somerset Hospital before any tender process began and after apparent facilitation by Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool.

Rasool has been at the centre of controversy over allegations that he improperly discussed the sale of the provincial government’s most valuable piece of land with potential buyers during a visit to Dubai last November.

Rasool told the Western Cape legislature that the sale of the historic site was not discussed during the visit.

It now seems clear, however, that there has been substantial intervention from the top level of the provincial government to grant a Dubai-led consortium privileged access to provincial officials ahead of his trip, and that he may have misled the legislature about what happened while he was in the emirate.

The Mail & Guardian has established that two meetings were held at the Cape Grace Hotel on November 7 and 8 last year, apparently at Rasool’s behest, to discuss the Somerset Hospital site.

According to a detailed record of the November 7 meeting obtained by the M&G, it was attended by representatives of Dubai World and their advisers, along with six provincial officials and Cape Town businessman Hassen Adams.

Adams is widely seen as a close friend and key backer of Rasool.

Dubai World is the development arm of the Dubai government and, through its subsidiary Istithmar, the primary investor in the consortium that bought the V&A Waterfront for R7-billion last year. Adams, who accompanied Rasool on his Dubai trip, is among the empowerment partners in the consortium.

‘We were told by [provincial transport and public works minister] Marius [Fransman] that the premier gave instructions that we should attend these two meetings at the Cape Grace Hotel,” a senior provincial government official who attended the meetings told the M&G this week.

‘It was very strange and highly irregular for us to be instructed to attend a meeting with a prospective tenderer before the public tender process has even been published,” this official said. ‘It was even more irregular for an offer to purchase to be made at this meeting. They offered us R1,1-billion for the site, but they want to shift the location of the hospital.”

Notes from the meeting suggest that Adams believed that a sale to the Dubai-led group was a foregone conclusion: ‘Hassen made a point of it to inform us that once the premier goes to Dubai the deal [to sell Somerset Hospital] will, in any case, be concluded,” the notes say.

According to the provincial official: ‘Adams was very confident that the Dubai guys will be the new owners­ of the Somerset site. My superior at the department of public works, who was at the meeting with me, said he is not attending any further meetings with these guys because it’s irregular. ‘I’m not going to jail for other people’s shit and corruption,’ he said.”

Adams denies being present at any such meeting: ‘No discussion took place in my presence with regard to the acquisition of the Somerset Hospital site, as clearly no tender process for the site was in place,” he said via email.

Separate sources, however, have confirmed that the deal was discussed in Dubai, although it was deleted from the agenda.

‘The acquisition of Somerset Hospital was officially taken off the agenda, but a second meeting was held, which Rasool attended. Members of Rasool’s delegation spoke to a group of Dubai businessmen about buying the site. It happened,” a senior provincial figure who travelled with Rasool to Dubai confirmed this week.

The attendance roster for the Cape Town meetings demonstrates how far ahead the Dubai-led consortium is planning. Present were James Wilson, CEO of Nakheel Hotels and Dubai World’s point man in Cape Town; John Ecroyd, a planning consultant from Dubai; an architect from the British firm Nightingale; and two top represenatives of the Japanese construction firm, Taisei, which has previously undertaken large projects for Dubai World.

‘The Dubai guys told us that they want to shift the location of the hospital to another site — we told them it’s impossible because of the public participatory process and we reminded them that this is a historic site. We also asked them where they’re planning to build the Gap housing [a middle-income housing development], which was part of the zoning application for this site. They brushed our questions aside,” the provincial official said.

Rasool’s spokesperson, Shadow Twala, denied any impropriety. ‘There is no substance to the allegations made against the premier — we stand by the premier’s response to the provincial legislature last year”. She referred further queries to Fransman, who said the meetings were informal.

‘No agreement was made at this meeting — we don’t make deals with unsolicited bidders,” he said.

The meeting had been arranged by Denis Lillie, project director for the 2010 World Cup at the department of transport and public works and not by him or the premier, he added.

Lillie confirmed that he set up the meeting with Wilson as the new owner of the Waterfront. He maintains he had no idea that Wilson and his group are prospective bidders for the Somerset Hospital site.

‘We wanted to talk to the new owners of the Waterfront about development in that area because Wilson said he has an extra $1-billion to invest in the area. I didn’t know they were prospective bidders,” Lillie said.

He denied that the sale of the Somerset Hospital site was discussed. ‘No figures were mentioned and Adams didn’t say the sale of the site to the Dubai group will be concluded by the premier in Dubai,” he said.

Robin Carlisle, DA member of the provincial legislature, said this week: ‘Unless the notes of the Cape Grace meeting are a deliberate fabrication — which seems most unlikely — the M&G revelations of an irregular deal to favour the Dubai interests in the acquisition of the Somerset Hospital site spell the imminent end of premier Rasool’s political career.

‘These revelations fly directly in the face of assurances to the contrary that Rasool gave in the provincial parliament on December 5 last year, and those assurances would then have been deliberate lies,” Carlilse said.

‘The already deeply troubling issues around the premier’s involvement with Dubai World — including who footed the hotel bills of R16 000 per person per day — are now taken to new levels, which make urgent and independent investigation imperative. In addition, all negotiations between the province and Dubai World relating to the Somerset Hospital site must be frozen.”