21 April 2024 | 12:08 AM

One of Botswana’s biggest landholders embroiled in controversy

Key Takeaways

An investigation by amaBhungane and the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism has cast new light on a secretive British-registered company whose extensive colonial-era land holdings have become a hot political issue in Botswana.

Politicians across the southern African country’s political divide have expressed concern about the Tati Company, which is believed to own large tracts of land in the North-East District while many Batswana are said to need land for housing, cultivation and grazing.

There is a widespread perception that the company’s main client is government and that it overprices the land it sells. AmaBhungane could find no evidence in Tati’s accounts or elsewhere either to confirm or disprove this claim.

The land, in Francistown and surrounding areas, was conceded in the late 19th century by the king of Matabeleland, Lobengula.

The Tati Company was incorporated in 1914 when Tati Concession Ltd ran into financial difficulties.

It passed into the hands of South African multimillionaire Bernard Glazer, whose ownership was confirmed in a controversial deal with Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama, after the country gained independence.

Glazer died in 1984.

The Tati Company is registered in the United Kingdom, but its holding company is a mysterious vehicle registered in the tax haven of Panama, Amarena Holdings, which is ultimately controlled by the The Bernard Glazer Will Trust, incorporated in South Africa.

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Tati’s 2016 accounts, sourced from the UK company register, valued the company’s net assets at 366-million pula (about R470-million today) and its pre-tax earnings from the ownership and trading of land at 42-million pula (R54-million), with the profit mainly coming from the upward revaluation of its land holdings.

One expert has alleged that together with other absentee landlords and freehold farmers, Tati owns more than 40% of land in the north-eastern Botswana. However, Tati’s directors would not comment on this claim.

Two of the directors, David Nathan and Neville Sweidan, are formerly senior executives of audit firm Grant Thornton, which has long been associated with Tati.

Nathan retired from Grant Thornton in 2014 and Sweidan in 2016.

Nathan refused to answer a long list of queries about Tati, including why a company operating in Botswana is owned by an entity registered in Panama.

He referred amaBhungane to Tati’s Botswana-based general manager, Ogaisitse Khama, a distant cousin of former president Ian Khama.

After numerous attempts to draw a response from him over a six-week period, Khama emailed: “Thank you for your inquiry. Please be informed that Tati Company is a private company. We therefore have no comment on the story and have not confirmed its accuracy.”

The accounts raise other questions, which were put to Nathan and Khama but not answered. These included why Sam Glazer – Bernard Glazer’s son – was paid a 6-million pula (R8-million) consulting fee in 2016.

They were also asked:

  • How much land it currently owns and how much it has sold over the years to the Botswana government, at what price
  • Whether the company has a close relationship with the Khama family, and whether this had any bearing on the agreement between Tati and Seretse Khama in 1970, which has been criticised as a “sweetheart” deal
  • Whether the company sells land at inflated prices, as claimed by its critics.

Questions to the Tati Land Board, which oversees land transactions in north-east Botswana, and the land ministry about the extent of Tati’s current holdings also went unanswered.

However, the company’s 2016 accounts list the company’s portfolio of investment properties as including 12 farms and 11 lots.

The total valuation of these properties was about 140-million pula (R181-million).

Critics in Botswana view Tati as a beneficiary of colonial plunder, and complain that its land holdings are a brake on development in Francistown.

Writing in the Botswana Sunday Standard in February this year, veteran journalist Bashi Letsididi commented that South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s public stance on the need for expropriation as a way of redressing South Africa’s land problems could prompt fresh scrutiny of Tati’s holdings in Botswana.

In August 2003, the opposition Botswana National Front tabled a motion in the Botswana Parliament calling on the government to expropriate all idle and unutilised land held by the Tati Company and other absentee landlords.

The government rejected the motion, saying this would contradict the principles of Botswana’s liberal democracy.

The opposition Botswana People’s Party (BPP) – once the dominant political force in Francistown – takes a hard line on Tati.

BPP president Motlatsi Molapisi told amaBhungane that the company is protected by its relationship with the Khama family. The deal reached between Seretse Khama and Tati in 1970, four years after independence, made no sense, he said.

“Batswana are still paying for this decision through a shortage of land,” Molapisi said. “The company is still able to sell land and dictate what development should happen on the land they have sold.

“To my knowledge, Tati did not buy any of that land, but now they sell it to government at a ridiculous price. Development in Francistown and the areas around it has been stagnant for decades because of this issue, and farmers complain about the shortage of grazing land.”

Molapisi said the BPP has long advised government to take back Tati’s holding. However, the authorities had refused to act because of what he claimed was the company’s relationship with the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

“We now realise that the ruling party will never take this land back unless we do something about it ourselves,” he said.

According to the 1911 Tati Concessions Land Act, the company once owned the whole of the Tati district, now known as the North East.

The Act confirmed the company in “full, free and undisturbed possession as owners of all the land within the Tati District, the limits of which … are … from the place where the Shashe River rises to its junction with the Tati and Ramokgwebana Rivers, thence along the Ramokgwebana River to where it rises and thence along the watershed of those rivers.”

The original Tati concession is thought to have totalled some 1.6 million acres (almost 650 000 hectares). The Francistown municipality covers 19 657 hectares.

The BDP MP for Tati East, Ignatius Moswaane, once the mayor of Francistown, said his office is currently researching how best to move the Tati issue forward and push government to reconsider its stance.

“Our forefathers signed off the land to Tati Company under very controversial circumstances, and went as far as to let them make laws that would protect them from anyone who would try to take back the land in future,” Moswaane said.

He said it is disheartening that after government allowed the company to keep the land after independence, nobody has tried to challenge the decision legally.

“We need to grow in the north and have no way of doing that because there is a serious land shortage. These people are selfish because they sell at inflated prices and still dictate to buyers on what development they can undertake on the land.”

He said that some Batswana have to wait more than 25 years to be allocated a plot.

Moswaane said it is worrying that the government shows no sign of trying to address the issue, and is unwilling to provide information about Tati.

“As a country, we observe the rule of law – that is why we have to deal with the legal aspect first. If this thing does not get corrected now, it will affect us forever. We need to push government to do something.”

Botswana’s constitution allows for expropriation “in order to secure the development or utilisation of … property for a purpose beneficial to the community”, where a law authorises this, and if there is “prompt payment of adequate compensation”.

In 2016, Sunday Standard reported that Moswaane had raised the land issue with the parliamentary accounts committee, saying that the company was becoming a state within a state because of its vast land holdings, while Batswana suffered land shortages.

The then-deputy permanent secretary in the land ministry, Bareng Malatsi, replied – incorrectly – that it was difficult to “control” the Tati land issue because the land in question was obtained at the time of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, which was then administered by dikgosi (traditional leaders).

He told the committee that the land falls under freehold system and was treated as private land when Botswana gained independence in 1966.

The February 1970 agreement between Seretse Khama’s government and Glazer also handed Tati rights to “all precious and base minerals and their ores, coal, limestone, precious stones, minerals oils and … all other minerals whatsoever upon or under the property”.

It assigned Tati the right “at all times to enter the property or part thereof for the purpose of inspection, survey, prospecting or mining”.

It stipulated that when any Tati land was sold, the government should “free of cost of issue to Tati Company a certificate of all rights to all minerals in respect of each such piece of the property”.

This was in sharp contrast with policy in most newly independent African countries, which vested mineral rights in the state. It was not immediately clear whether Tati still had mineral rights.

Tati agreed in 1970 to donate and sell some land to the government. Attempts to establish from the land ministry how much land the company let go and how much it retained under this agreement were unsuccessful.

The ministry of land management, water and sanitation services did, however, disclose that thereare no immediate plans to acquire land from Tati.

Director of lands Segomotso Maroba said adequate freehold land has been purchased in Gerald Estate, a suburb of Francistown, to augment state holdings to accommodate growth. “Further, there are undeveloped or unallocated pockets of serviced land within the city that are not developed.

“However, it is a standing government policy that, funds permitting, freehold land be acquired to augment tribal and state land as and when the need arises or for infrastructure development.”

She did not answer an amaBhungane question about how much the government has spent on land purchases from Tati over the years.

However, in 2004 University of Botswana academic Zibani Maundeni wrote that in addition to 8 132 hectares for the existing township, the government had bought 11 525 hectares in Gerald Estate “for future expansion of the city”.

Maundeni could not be contacted for further information, including the price of the sale.

According to another University of Botswana academic, Boga Manatsha, the Botswana government has struggled to resolve the land crisis in the north-east of the country since independence because of its market-driven approach.

“In most cases under the willing-buyer willing-seller approach, as observed in north-eastern Botswana, landlords demand exorbitant sums for their land, leading to a willing-seller, unwilling-buyer scenario,” Manatsha said.

In an academic article entitled “The land question and colonial legacy in north-eastern Botswana”, Manatsha claimed that Tati Company, absentee landlords and freehold farmers own 42% of the land in the north-east.

Tati’s 2016 accounts list its company’s portfolio of investment properties as: “Farm 6/NQ, Farm 29/NQ, Farm 32/NQ, Farm 42/NQ remainder, Farm 45/NQ, Farm 46/NQ, Farm 46/NQ-1, Farm 56/NQ, Farm 60/NQ, Farm 65/NQ, Farm 66/NQ, Farm 69/NQ remainder, Lot 37175, Lot 16136, Lot 32845, Lot 32846, Lot 32848, Lot 32856, Lot 37345, Lot 37346, Lot 37196, Lot 41332, Lot 41333.”

Neither the land ministry nor the land board would provide details of the location or size of these holdings. “You can obtain such information by conducting a deeds search at the Deeds Registry (in Francistown) and also inquire directly from the Tati Company,” Maroba said.

The deeds registry refused access to the records unless Tati gave permission.

Inspection of Tati’s annual accounts showed some details of its property sales, but generally it did not identify the buyers.

In one case in 2008, Tati sold three of its Francistown commercial properties to Botswana-listed PrimeTime Properties for 75-million pula (R98-million), making Tati PrimeTime’s third largest shareholder.

Since then, much of Tati’s profit appears to have come from large upward revaluations of its properties. Mostly due to the these, Tati’s investment properties swelled in value from 7-million pula (R9-million) in 2010 to 140-million pula (R181-million) in 2016.

According to Tati’s accounts, the property valuer was “independent” and based his numbers on market values.

Manatsha, the academic, states that concession documents dating from the 1870s were written in English and explained to Lobengula, who could neither read nor write, by “a white man” (British adventurer Sir John Swinburne). Lobengula’s signature is identified in all the concession agreement documents by a cross.

He argues that in granting the concession, Lobengula did not intend to give away the land for good or to sell it, because he was not the “rightful owner” – and that the Europeans were aware of this.

“What ought to be done is that government must call Tati Company and other freehold farmers to the negotiation table. It is only after such discussions that radical measures can be put in place. But at the moment no serious discussions have been done over this issue,” he writes.

Tati, according to records filed with the UK company register, is majority-owned by Amarena Holdings, registered in 1975 in the offshore jurisdiction of Panama.

The website OpenCorporates, citing Panama’s registry, names Amarena’s directors as Julius Feinstein, Charles Zell Rangecroft and Bernard Glazer, who is given as the president of the company.

How current this is is unclear, as Glazer died in 1984, while Feinstein, one of the founders of audit firm Kessel Feinstein – Grant Thornton’s forerunner – died in 2002.

It is unclear whether Rangecroft, a former Kessel Feinstein partner and later Geneva resident, is still alive.

Glazer’s labyrinthine network of offshore companies is detailed in a document sourced from Wikileaks called the “Blue File”.

Although the authors are not named, the file states that it was the product of investigations requested by Glazer’s daughter, Michelle.

In a court application in 2004 she argued that she gave up certain share interests in exchange for a lump sum payment, based on incomplete and misleading information about the assets.

The Blue File states that in October 2015 Michele Glazer “unilaterally” withdrew her case against the Glazer estate in the Pretoria High Court and the authors “suspect an arrangement with her family ensued”.

The Blue File claims that the administrators of Glazer’s estate may have set up mechanisms to funnel vast sums from Glazer’s investments especially mining royalties held across Southern Africa to other locations “to avoid tax and other regulations”.

The file states that efforts to thoroughly investigate the finances of Amarena – described as Glazer’s offshore investment company – or the Swiss Bank accounts held by Glazer before his death were hampered by lack of funds.

Several efforts to reach Michelle Glazer on her mobile phone were unsuccessful.

Attempts to get comment about the Blue File and its allegations from Nathan also failed.

He told this reporter never to call him again, adding that he does not talk about the company to journalists.

Nathan again referred amaBhungane to Khama, who also failed to answer the follow-up questions about the Blue File. He did not return calls or respond to emailed questions.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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