/ 6 November 2014

South Africans carve an Eden in the Seychelles

Eden Island
Eden Island

It is Friday night, and Springboks Pierre Spies and Francois Hougaard are sitting in high chairs in the beachside Eish! Bar (named for the Klipdrift advertisement and its take on the Afrikaans word for “ice”), answering questions about their craft for an appreciative audience.

The bar is festooned with sports memorabilia, with a Premier League football shirt here and a German sports symbol there, but it is heavily weighted towards Springbok and South African provincial rugby jerseys. The crowd is almost entirely white, but there is only one form of discrimination here: Golden Lions vs Western Province.

It is about as typical a South African scene as you could ask for: cold beer, a roaring fire outside in preparation for a braai, English accents that range from Free State rough to Sandton drawl. The only giveaway is the smothering humidity, which is running a little high even for the Durbanites present.

Also, if you want to get technical about it, the coconut trees looming just outside the firelight may arouse a certain suspicion that this little corner of South Africa is not actually attached to the mother country.

The Springboks, their chairs, and in fact the entire bar, sits on a little patch of what was, until fairly recently, ocean. And it will be ocean again fairly soon; the area is due for excavation to extend a basin to make room for more yachts to berth.

That basin will be one of the finishing touches to Eden Island, a small but increasingly densely populated adjunct to Mahé, the island that hosts Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, the lights of which blink just over Hougaard’s uncommonly broad shoulders and across the bay.

The bar, the locals say, is the work of Johan van der Watt, an architect with the Stellenbosch-based Dennis Moss Partnership. But it is just the most obvious South African part of what is, arguably, a South African expatriate project.

Operation overthrow
South Africa has had its eye on the Seychelles for a long time, but previous attempts at establishing a beachhead on the islands went poorly. In 1981 Michael (“Mad Mike”) Hoare and his South African mercenaries poorly disguised as “The Ancient Order of Froth-Blowers” were caught carrying weapons almost as soon as they set foot on Mahé.

They immediately – and bloodily – hijacked a plane to return them to Durban. Hoare always maintained his operation to overthrow the Seychelles government was approved by Pretoria, an assertion the Truth and Reconciliation Commission agreed with.

Where guns failed money has succeeded – although it is more than three decades later.

South African engineering and management carved Eden Island, a filled-in coral outcrop, into an intricate shape that allows the number of yachts in protected moorings to outstrip the number of human residents during the off season. South African fundraising attracted the $500-million in capital, some of it South African, some from Austria and beyond.

In the Eden Bleu hotel just across the construction yard from the Eish! Bar the soap is from Cape Town and the tissues from East London. When Eden Island needed to sell units it turned to iconic South African real estate company Pam Golding Properties; when it needed to claim money from a Russian businessman it turned to Johannesburg-based law firm Webber Wentzel.

“You could say we have done this with an entirely South African team,” says Eden Island Development chairperson Craig Heeger.

Golf estate flavour
The influence shows. Although the team is proud of the Seychellois flavour in the design, the tightly clustered cookie-cutter mansions on the island (still available, and starting at $2 525 000, if you move quickly) would be utterly at home in a residential golf estate north of Johannesburg.

The Eden Plaza shopping centre is eerily reminiscent of a casino complex in one of South Africa’s secondary cities except for the money-changing shop that also sells yachts. The microbrewery in the works sounds like something a trendy Cape Town suburb would boast.

And initially Eden really was a South African outpost: 55% of the residential units (ranging from mansions to apartments) were owned by South Africans, sales chief Peter Smith, another South African, says. As the development nears sold-out status, however, and money from the Middle East and former Eastern bloc countries continues to pour in, that proportion has dropped to around 35%.

The strong links to South Africa brought its fair share of trouble. When Heeger first came on to the scene in 2005 with his ambitious plans, locals questioned the sudden chumminess between their government and the interloper.

When developers in 2006 started stripping back the vegetation that had naturally taken root on the reclaimed island, there was a storm of protest, which only gradually died down as landscapers rebuilt the island from scratch. When word spread that up to six co-owners of a residential unit could each claim residency in the Seychelles, political eyebrows hit political hairlines.

But the South Africans stuck it out. Heeger cites the “dependable” partnership of the Seychelles government as one reason, the sheer beauty of the islands as another, and safety as the clincher. “We have a number of leaders of countries who own property here,” Heeger says. “They are comfortable to come here and walk around without their security. Why? Because you can’t even own a spear gun in the Seychelles.”

Low crime rate
In the past year, law-enforcement sources say, the Seychelles (population 90 000) recorded two murders, both basically family affairs. South African women involved in the Eden Island marvel, unprompted, about their ability to walk anywhere, at any time, without fear of assault or rape. That environment, everyone agrees, made it easy to attract both the kind of talented people and the money required to succeed.

The other reasons for success, the “political” ones, require coaxing, beer and anonymity.

“I’ll tell you this,” a manager closely associated with the project says, after such a three-pronged approach. “If we did this at home [in South Africa] everything would cost twice as much because of empowerment, and you’d have to give the government their cut every step of the way. Here we can do business. So we come here, we do business, and we tell the people at home: ‘See what you’re missing?’ We do it here, and these people get the benefit, and they thank us for it.”

Officially South Africa is still home for those involved and, officially, they intend to return. In private, however, not a single engineer, foreman or manager is talking about projects in South Africa. They consider themselves citizens of the world, and their opportunities lie elsewhere.

Phillip de Wet was a guest of the Eden Bleu hotel during its opening weekend in October.