Couple’s battle for ‘racist’ lodge

2018-06-12 00:44

A couple’s dream of owning and running a multimillion-rand tourist lodge in Mpumalanga is still up in the air after, they claim, they demanded decent accommodation for black staff and for a black manager to be paid as much as a junior, white administrator.

Sibusiso (39) and Ntombizodwa (30) Tshabalala’s stake in Bundu Lodge is before the Supreme Court of Appeal after the former owner unsuccessfully applied to the Pretoria High Court to have the deal cancelled.

Last year, the Tshabalalas paid R32 million for a 67.7% stake in Bundu Lodge, outside the town of White River, which is popular with travellers who want to visit the Kruger National Park and other scenic attractions in the area.

They thought the lodge – which, according to its website, is a popular wedding venue with “102 standard, family, luxury and executive rooms, a well-known restaurant and conferencing for up to 450 guests” – would be a good investment because they had already decided to relocate to Mpumalanga.

The Tshabalalas bought the stake from founder and owner Willem Janson after securing a R32 million loan from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).

But, halfway through the sale process, Janson changed his mind and went to court to try to cancel the deal, claiming the Tshabalalas hadn’t met the conditions of sale.

After the court ruled in their favour, the Tshabalalas believe Janson’s about-turn had nothing to do with their failure to uphold their part of the bargain.

They instead claim it was because they raised concerns about racism at their first board meeting in September.

Issues they raised included that the general staff, who are all black, were living in “appalling” conditions in a compound while management, administrators and receptionists lived in houses at the Bundu Estate and were allowed to enjoy two meals a day at the restaurant, at which their families could also eat at discounted rates.

Janson, an attorney by profession, has dismissed the allegations as “nonsense” and “absolute rubbish”.

“They tried to make out there’s racism. I was the first [white] man in Mpumalanga to work with black lawyers in my office, and that was during apartheid,” he said.

“This man is catching flies. I have hundreds of people to look after and I don’t have time to catch flies. This is petty nonsense,” he said, adding that he did not judge people on their race, but on merit.

Sibusiso said: “Cracks started showing after the first board meeting in September. We found a black manager earned less than a white administrator, and they were not excited that we were upfront about those issues. They then went to court.

“We presented a corporate strategy and were frank in pointing out things that needed to be improved, such as equality, opportunities for everyone and staff accommodation.”

In court papers, Janson said the Tshabalalas failed to fulfil two conditions of the sale agreement: that the IDC should approve their loan application by October 23 2017 and that a shareholding agreement be entered into.

Janson claimed these conditions were not met, but acting Judge Henk Roelofse found otherwise.

“The reliance upon any nonfulfilment of the first condition is perverse and an afterthought, most probably brought about by the seller’s remorse,” Roelofse ruled.

The judge also found that the IDC and the Tshabalalas entered into a loan agreement last year, and had also concluded a shareholding agreement.

“The parties’ conduct in fulfilling the second condition, the entering into the shareholders’ agreement and the fulfilment of the suspensive conditions contained therein, clearly shows the parties did not consider the first condition [IDC loan] unfulfilled,” he said.

Sibusiso said he and his legal team had asked Janson “many times” why he wanted them out, but had not received a clear answer. He said that, after the first board meeting, the couple took over running the business and achieved a record turnover of R3 million for October and November.

Despite this, Sibusiso alleges that Janson returned from holiday in December and demanded a meeting with them because he had been told the Tshabalalas were “excluding others” and “making unilateral decisions”.

“We had weekly management meetings, but he said we were putting up structures like [former president] Jacob Zuma has done in the country. This statement tells you we’re being undermined because we’re black,” Sibusiso said.

“Just eight days before the transfer of business, we were on our way to Johannesburg when we got a call from the IDC asking us why the deal had collapsed. Janson had phoned the IDC and said the deal was off. A commercial bank also told us the deal was off.”

Janson has now petitioned the Supreme Court of Appeal directly after Judge Roelofse dismissed his application for leave to appeal his judgment.

“We honestly don’t know why Janson wants us out of the deal because the court has found that we did everything right,” Sibusiso said.

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January 20 2019