/ 11 March 2011

Share it or lose it — a familiar tale

Share It Or Lose It A Familiar Tale

It is an all too familiar South African story, one that involves a local politician, an ANC bigwig and a white businessman.

When Upington businessman Desmond Walker started a resort business in 2006, he briefed his friends, ANC provincial chairperson John Block and Upington mayor Gift van Staden, on his plans.

They were especially excited, Walker told the Mail & Guardian this week, because he planned to include the local coloured community, providing houses and jobs that would help the ANC reach its goal of a better life for all.

And when Walker opened the doors to his brand-new upmarket lodge called the River Ridge Resort, on the banks of the Orange River, his friends were there.

Many high-level ANC and government meetings were held at the resort, Walker says, and in the process his friendship with Block and Van Staden blossomed. They started asking him for favours to help out the ANC, he says, and he was ready to be of service.

For months he paid the regional ANC office telephone bill, until it rose to R18 000. Donations for athletes, events and funerals were asked for and given. Was there an explicit agreement that Walker would benefit from such a relationship?

‘Vague terms
“These guys speak in very vague terms. You never clearly understand what they’re saying. “It’s not as if they say, ‘Give a donation for this funeral and we’ll do something for you.’ It was never quite clear what the terms of engagement were,” he says. Then the demands escalated and the relationship turned sour.

“They wanted 20% of my company. They said they’ve calculated the value of the company [the resort] and they want to become my partners, with a 20% share that they’ll split between them.”

Walker refused and says he paid a heavy price. Soon afterwards his business was closed down by the Upington municipality on the grounds that he did not have a licence to operate a resort on agricultural land.

The council’s rejection of Walker’s licence application, submitted shortly before he turned down his two wannabe partners, claims that the resort lies beneath the floodline of the river.

“And now, after all the rains Upington has had,” Walker says wryly, “my resort is one of the only structures that remained undamaged.” Walker’s attempt to have the court order overturned has dragged on for five years, with the latest hearing due to take place in the Kimberley High Court shortly. Once close friends, the three men now only meet in court.

Block, Van Staden and ANC provincial secretary Zamani Saul were approached for comment but declined to do so.