/ 9 July 2015

De Lille and the contentious Clifton Scenic Reserve megaproject

Maiden's Cove
Maiden's Cove

Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille is driving a campaign to put a sought-after stretch of Clifton’s public coastline into the hands of private developers, in the teeth of serious opposition from the city’s own officials and ratepayers.

The city’s proposed project, formally tabled in January and estimated by some residents to be worth about R1-billion, is now open to public comment and will include a competitive tender.

De Lille’s campaign follows on the heels of an unsolicited bid by a private consortium that involves two of her acquaintances: controversial businessperson Mark Willcox and property developer Tobie Mynhardt.

There is no evidence that there was anything improper about the way Mynhardt or Willcox have pursued the bid. However, the question that does emerge is whether De Lille’s personal relationships influenced her to back a potentially controversial plan rather than recognise a possible conflict of interest and stand back.

But De Lille denied that her personal relationships played a role, saying: “The process of releasing such property is prescribed by legislation, which we rigorously follow. This includes public participation and an open tender process for the Clifton land. Tender matters are evaluated outside of political influence.”

Deputy mayor Ian Neilson said a proposal to develop the site, submitted to him by Mynhardt in December 2013, “was not accepted”. But events show that within two months, the city was running with a plan very similar to Mynhardt’s.

At the time, one official claimed to have been “warned” not to oppose the development because it was considered “a mayoral project”. AmaBhungane cannot name the official, but has seen records from that time that reflect the view.

Willcox said he had been “a potential financier” for Mynhardt’s proposal and that he had never discussed the project with De Lille. In response to questions, he threatened to sue over what he called “unfounded and slanderous allegations”.

De Lille is the Western Cape leader of the Democratic Alliance, which rules both the city and the province. The city, which presents itself as a beacon of transparency and open governance, has withheld information requested by ama-Bhungane that could throw light on the genesis of the mayor’s plan for Clifton.

Last month it rejected amaBhu-ngane’s request made weeks earlier under the Promotion of Access to Information Act for the names of entities that have lodged bids for the Clifton site to be opened to them for development. It said this “would amount to unreasonable disclosure of personal information”.

AmaBhungane has independently sourced key details of the plan for Clifton. But the refusal of the Act’s application could have the effect of shielding the mayor’s personal relationships and the business interests of her acquaintances from public scrutiny.

Around dinner tables
Willcox is best known as ANC luminary Tokyo Sexwale’s right-hand man, dating back to 1998 when they formed the black empowerment vehicle Mvelaphanda Holdings.

Previously, amaBhungane has written about Willcox’s involvement in controversial mine and oil deals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, involving Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s close friend Dan Gertler, President Jacob Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma and Zuma’s lawyer Michael Hulley.

Approached for comment on the Clifton project, Willcox confirmed that he had been “a social friend of Mrs de Lille for over eight years” and that they enjoyed “social dinners” together.

De Lille attended Willcox’s wedding late last year, amaBhungane has established.

De Lille also confirmed the relationship, saying: “I have met him socially several times in the past few months.”

Some of these engagements were at Willcox’s Clifton home.

AmaBhungane also heard evidence that contradicted De Lille’s and Willcox’s versions that the dinner dates were all purely social (see below). Although there is no evidence that the Clifton upgrade was discussed, “the past few months” would have coincided with the city’s formal process for the project.

Social media searches also revealed a set of relationships between De Lille’s family and that of property developer Mynhardt. He is a Facebook friend of De Lille’s son Alistair de Lille, and Mynhardt’s daughter, a successful Cape Town singer, has more than once thanked De Lille on social media for her support.

Alistair de Lille refused to comment.

Patricia de Lille said: “My family knows Mr Mynhardt’s family.” She did not disclose this in an earlier response about Mynhardt’s bid to develop Clifton.

In contrast, Mynhardt’s lawyer, Rael Gootkin, said: “Neither [Mynhardt] nor his family have any familial relationship with Mrs De Lille or her family. Mr Mynhardt confirms that he has met Mrs De Lille in a social environment on occasion, in particular when Mr Mynhardt’s daughter was a finalist on Idols of 2014.”

Up for grabs
Wedged between the world-famous beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay lies the Clifton Scenic Reserve. It is a largely undeveloped area, flanked by 500m of road on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Open to the public, it offers stretches of indigenous coastal fynbos, bowling greens, tennis courts, a cricket oval, sprawling lawns and the tidal pools of Maiden’s Cove.

Over the festive season, the site is swamped with revellers who travel from across the city to enjoy easy access to an otherwise congested and exclusive coastline. The site has been designated a national monument for nearly 70 years and is a provincial heritage site.

In 2008, Clifton residents approached the city with a proposal: they would fix up the dilapidated municipal garages on the edge of the reserve and add new parking bays at their own cost. The proposed project would not extend beyond the garage site, already zoned for “special business”, into the reserve.

Ideas flowed back and forth. Minor commercial initiatives were mooted by the city’s consultants, such as a deli or a line of kiosks on the garage site.

In late 2010, the city published an advertisement for a public process to “establish a parking garage and related commercial development on the property and within its immediate surrounding area”. There were objections, and all went quiet again.

Three years later, in December 2013, Mynhardt’s proposal landed, unsolicited, on the desks of Neilson and city property manager André Human.

Gootkin, who also represents Willcox, said this “contemplated a development of approximately 700 parking bays and approximately 6?000m2 of commercial property”.

Visuals included in the proposal, which Gootkin showed amaBhu-ngane, depicted a strip mall and multilevel parking lot built across and beyond the existing bowling greens. The shopping complex would include “strip shops, restaurants and a medium-sized convenience food anchor”, the proposal stated.

The proposal represented a substantial expansion from the originally envisaged garage upgrade. And it extended well into the scenic reserve.

According to Gootkin, the city advised Mynhardt that such a plan would first require it to publish “a request for qualification, and thereafter a public participation process, culminating in an open advertised tender process”.

In early February last year, two months after Mynhardt submitted his proposal, residents reported that Human and two other city officials had been seen inspecting the site. Pressed for details, they explained to residents that they were considering a 750-bay parking garage, a Woolworths store and other shops, and possibly new bungalows.

The city’s expanded vision for the site was remarkably similar to that submitted by Mynhardt. This suggests that his proposal might have influenced the city to open the area, including the scenic reserve, to private development.

It was soon afterwards that the city official reported being “warned” not to oppose this “mayoral project”. And another official said that the project was now being “pushed forward”.

The city and De Lille deny favouring Mynhardt’s proposal, saying they have opened the development opportunity to public comment and that if it crosses that hurdle a competitive tender will be issued.

This year, a report was tabled in council calling for a public participation process that would allow the public to comment before a formal tender. The project had been “identified for the mayor’s strategic asset development initiative”, the report stated.

De Lille’s spokesperson, Zara Nicholson, explained that this initiative was part of a broader plan to generate revenue for the city by putting public spaces into private hands for commercial development. Property management officials regularly report directly to De Lille on specific projects, including the Clifton proposal.

An “interim conceptual proposal” envisaged a multistorey parking garage of 750 bays and about 2?750m2 of commercial space “including an anchor retail tenant”.

While the commercial area was smaller, the description and an accompanying visual still suggested a strip mall similar to the one proposed by Mynhardt.

Last month, the DA-dominated city council swept through an “in-principle approval” for separate portions of the land to be sold and leased for the development.

This hit serious opposition.

Reflecting the concerns of many ratepayers, African Christian Democratic Party councillor Grant Haskin stood up to motivate for the process to be held over. He cited the lack of a property valuation and feasibility studies, vague information, and concerns about traffic congestion, sewage disposal and the land’s protected status.

Haskin said his sources in city departments had told him the process was not ready to go public and that officials had been “forced”.

They also told him that the city’s financial managers were “aware of shortcomings” in the process but had “determined it was ‘acceptable risk’ to force the public to take the city to court, [as] the city will be able to defend itself based on new information gained”.

Haskin called this “unacceptable arrogance”.

AmaBhungane has learned that a number of officials oppose aspects of the proposal but believe that their professional views are being trampled underfoot by senior managers and politicians who are keen to push the project forward.

Asked to respond, Neilson drew a distinction between “packaging the development envelope and associated rights” before going public and “involving all stakeholders at the outset in pursuing the most appropriate development outcome”.

He said the city had chosen the latter and that “issues of tactical approach and legislative compliance have been conflated” by critics.

ANC councillor Jeremiah Thuynsma said he had argued in council last month that poor Capetonians would be denied access to the beach, and asked De Lille whether her relationship with Willcox had anything to do with the plan.

Only last month the city’s architectural consultants presented diagrams for a bigger project than that proposed by Mynhardt or presented by the city early this year.

In defence of Willcox and Mynhardt, Gootkin said “the city has decided to pursue a far more expanded development” than proposed by Mynhardt.

Gootkin said Willcox “had absolutely no involvement in advising or conceptualising the development proposed by the city in whatsoever form, nor has he discussed it with the mayor or any city official”.

In her own defence, De Lille said the city’s process “is for the good of the people of Cape Town [and] is a transparent and open one that is trying to find innovative sources of revenue”.

Cape Town’s mayor and her friends deny talking business at the dinner table

Up and down Victoria Road, tongues are wagging about Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille’s frequent kuiering at Mark Willcox’s home, an apartment with stunning views over the bay and direct access to Clifton First Beach.

Prying neighbours learned months ago that Willcox had an interest in plans to develop the Clifton Scenic Reserve. Surely this was why she was meeting him, they assumed.

Not so, said De Lille when first approached by amaBhungane: “These are two unrelated facts that are being pulled together to create a conspiracy.” They were “social meetings”, and she did not “discuss official business at such gatherings”, she said.

Willcox agreed. His lawyer Rael Gootkin said: “To equate social dinners with any relation to the Clifton expanded upgrade is … spurious and borders on the ludicrous.”

AmaBhungane has no evidence that Clifton was discussed, but it has heard reliable evidence that contradicts De Lille’s suggestion that she scrupulously avoids discussing city business.

For example, in at least one instance this year, mayoral committee member Garreth Bloor accompanied her to dine at Willcox’s residence. They were said to have been joined by an investor and the dinner table topic was a proposal for a Formula 1 Grand Prix to be held around the Green Point common and through the Cape Town stadium.

De Lille was evasive on whether this discussion took place: “I have discussed the F1 with numerous people but discussions do not lead to decisions.” She said legislative processes would be followed.

Bloor later confirmed the visit and topic: “I have been there with the mayor and discussed issues in the public domain, including the idea of an F1 in Cape Town.”

While the company and the subject matter might imply the meeting was more than just social, Bloor downplayed this. “As these [issues] have nothing to do with city decisions, they are merely regarded as informal conversations.”

AmaBhungane also heard that De Lille separately encouraged Willcox to donate to charitable causes around Cape Town. Asked about this, she said: “Mr Willcox is an extremely generous man. He has given anonymously to several charitable endeavours that I am aware of.”

But how did she know of Willcox’s charitable donations if they were anonymous?

And had she ever presented charitable items to Capetonians knowing that he had paid for them? If so, she might have derived political benefit from Willcox’s generosity – though there is no evidence that this occurred.

Her response to each question was puzzling. “Donations are anonymous in the public domain,” she said in an email.

Gootkin said: “The thinly veiled suggestion that [Willcox] made contributions to the mayor’s charities or her political party in return for the city favouring my client … is denied. This is defamatory not only of my client but also of the mayor.”

On the question of direct political donations, De Lille was similarly unhelpful: “As the Mail & Guardian knows, my party [the Democratic Alliance] does not discuss who has, and who has not, contributed to political projects with donations.” 

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.