Herman Eckwert (61) and his wife Briget (56) are in limbo over their dream holiday home in Rehoboth, Namibia, after discovering that the land they built on is the subject of a bitter ownership dispute.
The Eckwerts — who own Klein Windhoek Schlachterei in Windhoek — are one of dozens of property owners who are leasing prime land from a politically connected company called Acasia Resorts.
Acasia is locked in a court battle with the Rehoboth Town Council, which claims to be the true owner.
The company’s sub-tenants include wealthy business people such as the Eckwerts, government ministers — including public enterprises minister Leon Jooste — and well-heeled professionals including doctors and lawyers.
Their luxury homes overlook Lake Oanob in Rehoboth, a popular location for canoeing, aquacycling and boat parties about 80km from Windhoek, and the site of the upmarket Lake Oanob Resort.
“My parents thought that they are leasing the land for 99 years,” said the Eckwerts’ son Klaus Eckwert, speaking on their behalf. “Now there’s this court case.”
He added that his parents are looking to buy, but do not know who from.
Favourable land deal
At the heart of the ownership battle is a highly favourable lease signed by Namibia’s current vice-president, Nangolo Mbumba, with Acasia in November 1994.
Mbumba, at that time agriculture, water and rural development minister, agreed to lease out a 4 300 hectare area next to dam for 50 years, with an option to renew for another 50 years at N$12 000 a year and an annual increase pegged to the inflation rate.
Acasia refused to say what it is currently paying the government. However, agriculture ministry permanent secretary Percy Misika said the company is paying just N$33 000 a year.
Using official figures for inflation over the past 24 years, The Namibian has calculated that the annual figure should be about $54 000.
None of the sub-lessees Namibian interviewed would disclose what they are paying Acasia. An expert evaluator told The Namibian that the fact that the land is close to the lake increases its value.
Acasia was registered as a company two years before signing the deal with Mbumba. Its largest shareholders were Swapo supporter-turned-businessman Christie Benade, and Sandra Tjitendero, the late wife of Namibia’s first parliamentary Speaker, Mose Tjitendero.
Benade, currently the majority shareholder, refused to answer The Namibian’s questions, telling the newspaper to ask the judge of the High Court of Namibia what tenants are paying.
He said the newspaper must put its questions to “the people who took the story to the media”.
Sources said Acasia has been “untouchable” for the past 20 years. What propelled its deal with Mbumba into the public eye was a housing development by a private company that bought land from the Rehoboth council.
Acasia reacted by suing Oanab Dax Investment CC — which is carrying out the development — the council, the Rehoboth deeds office, the registrar of deeds and the government, among others.
The deeds authorities have been drawn into the dispute because they have refused to register Acasia’s lease.
Details of Mbumba’s generosity — including the modest annual rental and the length of the lease — are revealed in cabinet papers and other documents tabled in court. He also refused to answer questions.
Acasia wants the High Court to stop Oanob Dax Investment from constructing residential apartments on the land, which they claim they have been renting from the council since 1994.
Oanab Dax plans to construct a township of 167 housing units on the 240-hectare Farm 1127, which Acasia says falls within its lease area.
Responding to Acasia’s court application, the Rehoboth council said that there is no legal relationship between itself, the owner of the land, and Acasia.
“The purported agreement being relied upon by [the] plaintiff was signed with a third party not authorised by the first defendant [the council],” it says in its court papers. Acasia, therefore, had no legal standing to bring the application.
The council added that it owned the land at the time of the 1994 agreement and still does. “The minister and cabinet had no right or authority in law to have signed and/or to have taken the decision referred to in the purported agreement,” it said.
It added that the lease agreement should have been signed in terms of the Local Authorities Act to be legally binding.
It objected that since 1994 Acasia had been sub-letting the land to third parties without the right to do so.
A prominent property lawyer, who asked not to be quoted, said that if Acasia loses the court case, it will be forced to negotiate a new lease with the Rehoboth council as the owners of the land.
The evaluator interviewed by The Namibian said this could result in a far higher rental than it is currently paying.
Million dollar development
The owner of Oanob Dax, Alfred Stephanus Dax, said that the company bought his 250 hectares from the local authority for N$5-million and that the purchase took three to four years to complete.
“We went through all the right channels and followed all the procedures,” Dax said.
He added that the company had spent at least N$9-million on the project to date, and that the losses incurred since August this year, when construction was due to start, run into millions.
Dax said that as far as he is concerned, the matter is “clear-cut corruption”. “People need to be held accountable for this. Some of us are almost bankrupt.”
Acasia was incorporated in October 1993, with hotel dealer Ivan Drotsky as sole director. In 2004 the directors were listed as Benade, pharmacist Nico Dunn, business consultant Eric Knouwds, and printing entrepreneur Dimitrio Metzler, who later drowned in a boating accident on Lake Oanob.
Trade ministry documents show that Benade was the largest shareholder, with 338 900 shares via Capricorn Investment, and Sandra Tjitendero the second largest, with 281 000 shares via her company, Vajoroka International.
Mbumba told The Namibian in 2016 that Sandra Tjitendero, who died in 2015 was his close friend. Asked whether he had declared his friendship when he leased the land to Acasia in 1994, he declined to comment.
Drotsky, Knouwds and Metzler could not be traced for comment.
This is not the first time the legality of the Acasia lease agreement has been raised.
Court papers reveal that in 2001 the agriculture ministry under minister Helmut Angula approached Cabinet on “how to resolve certain issues regarding the legality” of the lease agreement between Acasia and government. Angula also wanted guidance on how to deal with the ownership conflict.
The agriculture ministry proposed that the lease agreement be renegotiated as “the best way out … of the current morass”.
Cabinet resolved to terminate the lease agreement and appoint a cabinet committee chaired by the agriculture minister to renegotiate and amend the 1994 agreement.
The Namibian could not establish whether this was done. Asked if the Cabinet decision had been acted on, Mbumba refused to comment.
A cabinet action letter from that year reveals that a cabinet committee comprising the trade, tourism and agriculture ministers and the attorney-general was created in 1994 to discuss Acasia’s application to develop a resort in Rehoboth.
The initial application included the establishment of Rehoboth Spa, to which the Rehoboth council lodged an objection.
Acasia was then offered land adjacent to Lake Oanob, on which it established Lake Oanob Resort.
The agriculture department’s permanent secretary, Percy Misika, said this week that Acasia’s agreement with the ministry lasted only until 1997, after which it signed a new lease with water parastatal NamWater.
Misika said that this was because Namwater managed the ministry’s water facilities, including lakes, dams and aquifers. He did not explain its jurisdiction over the land
One of Acasia’s directors, Nico Dunn, is leasing a plot from Acasia. Dunn said that while he plans to build, he is awaiting the outcome of the court case before starting to develop.
Dunn would not disclose the rental he is paying.
Public enterprise minister Jooste said he is unaware of any illegality regarding Acasia’s rights, other than the allegations in the media.
“I secured my plot from Acasia Resorts in good faith,” he said.
The Rehoboth council was suspended in March this year by land reform minister Peya Mushellenga because of alleged maladministration.
However, the minister’s representative, Natalia/Goagoses, said that the land at Lake Oanob belongs to the council in terms of the decentralisation policy that came with the establishment of local authorities after Namibia’s independence.
She would not comment further, saying the matter is before court.
Land ministry spokesperson Crispin Matongela also told The Namibian that according to the Local Authorities Act, land belongs to the local authority which has jurisdiction over it.
“If you want to buy or lease land in Windhoek you go to the municipality; the same goes for other towns. The land belongs to the local authority in that area,” Matongela said.
*Ndapewoshali Shapwanale is an investigative reporter at The Namibian newspaper who is currently undertaking a fellowship at the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.