BEE twist in Sea Point row

Controversial development has political links

A row over the development of one of Cape Town’s most popular coastal sites has taken a sharply political turn with allegations that key local empowerment players are linked to the controversial scheme.

At issue are plans for a hotel, a retail centre and a gym on the Sea Point promenade adjacent to the water’s-edge public swimming pools.

Pressure group Seafront for All (Seafa) has asked the Cape High Court to set aside a decision by Tasneem Essop, the provincial minister for the environment and development planning, that allows the project approvals process to continue. Essop dismissed appeals against her department’s earlier approval of the development, arguing that any environmental harm would be outweighed by the benefits. Seafa counters that she failed properly to consider a range of problems, including the “privatisation” of a section of Sea Point beach.

But it is the allegation that prominent empowerment figure Fred Robertson and his wife, Ulpha, stand to benefit from the scheme that is attracting most interest, not least because of Robertson’s perceived backing for Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool.

According to a January 2000 news report annexed to Seafa’s court papers, a company called Commlife Properties “has been appointed by developers On-Track as the sole letting agent for the R60-million redevelopment of Sea Point Pavilion”.

Commlife is Robertson’s family company and holds a range of investments, many in conjunction with his listed financial services company, Brimstone.

Despite its economic interest as sole letting agent Commlife was commissioned to do an “economic report” on the development, which helped underpin the scoping documentation legally required by the application process.

“I submit that it was highly improper for On Track and its consultant to rely on an ‘expert’ report by a party which had a direct interest in the matter under review,” wrote Seafa’s Ben Rabinowitz in an affidavit filed last week.

Robertson, Brimstone and their links to Rasool have been the subject of repeated attacks in the provincial legislature from Democratic Alliance MPL Robin Carlisle and Rasool’s opponents within the ANC. Carlisle alleges, with more or less open support from the ANC, that in late 2006 Brimstone effectively received a R21-million provincial handout to rescue the ailing clothing firm Novel. The deal was facilitated by senior officials in the provincial development agency who are allegedly supporters of Rasool and who also have business ties to Brimstone.

Rasool has rebuffed allegations of nepotism, saying his “conscience is clear”, and Brimstone insists it took on Novel, which continues to lose money, “as part of its commitment to job creation and preservation in the Western Cape”.

Essop, the provincial minister who approved the Sea Point development, was involved in the Novel deal, which she has publicly defended against criticism from the auditor general, calling it a “unique step” designed to save jobs.

She staunchly denies that Robertson’s apparent involvement in the promenade project had anything to do with her decision.

“I never speak to the developer in any project that is before me for approval and the identity of those involved plays no part in my decision,” she told the Mail & Guardian, adding, “if you examine my record you will see that I am not swayed by the political status of applicants or of interested and affected parties”.

Ulpha Robertson, who heads Commlife’s property portfolio, did not respond to the M&G.

The development company On Track has strong connections to Cape Town’s emerging empowerment establishment. One of its three directors is Serena Rosslind, whose husband, Derrick, has a slice of the empowerment cake at the V&A Waterfront. She serves on the board of the Out of Africa Dance Academy, which, on its website, lists Ulpha Robertson as a sponsor.

On Track’s attorney of record is Hofmeyr Herbstein Gihwala. Chairperson Dines Gihwala represents Brimstone and the Robertsons and is a partner of On Track director Farrell Bernberg in several unrelated development projects. Dines Gihwala told the M&G there was no impropriety in the deal.

“If I come across anything in this litigation that smacks of corrupt activity I will withdraw immediately,” he said. “Yes, of course, we are all connected and yes we have friends in high places, but that doesn’t mean it’s a corrupt relationship. I know these people as people of integrity who make massive investments in the community.”

Facing off against this network is Seafa, which includes both Democratic Alliance and ANC supporters. Rabinowitz has been drumming up funding and support on the basis that the development will limit public access to unique sites in Cape Town which are enjoyed by people of all races and social classes.

 
Nic Dawes

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