For sale: Thabo Mbeki's hideaway

The South African Secret Service (SASS) is selling a luxury waters-edge property it bought less than three years ago as a discreet pow-wow venue for President Thabo Mbeki and his diplomatic guests.

The 14ha Hartbeespoort Dam estate is being marketed at R26-million to R30-million — an all-time high in an area that has become a playground for Gauteng’s very rich. SASS bought it through a front company for R11-million in 2002.

But the sale means no windfall for taxpayers. The Ministry for Intelligence Services this week confirmed that R15-million had been spent on building conference facilities and “other necessities”.

The total cost of R26-million, excluding transfer duties and inflation, equals the lower end of the asking price. While there has been a steep rise in Hartbeespoort property values, the spooks will do no better than break even.

It appears the sale is among cost-cutting measures introduced by new Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils.

Mbeki's hideaway was supposed to be a tightly guarded secret, hence the use of a front company with the innocent name of “Sakhile Recruitment Agency” to pose as owner.

But the area’s dispossessed were not fooled. Last year members of a nearby squatter community, faced with eviction, threatened to occupy “Mbeki’s farm”. Said one: “If we are forced to move again, we will go and squat on [the president’s] doorstep.”

At the time presidential spokesperson David Hlabane denied that Mbeki “owned” property in the area.

When estate agency Michael Black Investment Properties advertised the property earlier this month, it could not resist a hint. Punting “undoubtedly the finest privately owned estate on Hartbeespoort Dam”, it said that it was “re-created to presidential standards” and that the improvements included three 200m² “presidential lodges”.

Other features include a main house with six bedrooms en-suite, the conference venue for 30 to 35 people, a “huge feature swimming pool”, a tennis court, a jetty and boat house (“imported Sea Ray inboard cruiser included”), a manager’s house, general staff rooms and two guards’ cottages.

Security is tight — entrance by appointment only — and includes palisade fencing, 3m high electric fencing and a line of buoys interdicting unwanted water traffic.

The estate is densely wooded, with none of the main buildings visible from the perimeter.

The Michael Black advertisement said the estate was “currently utilised as an entertainment and exclusive conference centre of ultimate proportions”.

Mbeki’s office did not reply to questions, but the intelligence ministry said “the intended use was to provide a suitable venue for Africa’s delegations during peace negotiations”.

The ministry’s spokesperson, Lorna Daniels, did not respond to questions about the actual use of the property or dignitaries who may have been hosted or functions held.

Asked why it had been necessary to own the property through a front company, Daniels said: “The property was registered in the name of a company owned by the South African Secret Service. The reason for this was to avoid attracting undue attention to the venue, and therefore only a reasonable level of cover was required.”

SASS is the external counterpart of the National Intelligence Agency; it operates mainly abroad.

Statutory documentation shows that Sakhile Recruitment Agency bought the property from “Kelly Girl” magnate Neville Mackay in February 2002. Sakhile has two members, each with a 50% interest. Both are employees of SASS.

When the Mail & Guardian last year made inquiries at the property about who the owner was, it was given only the name “Mosikare”. The Treasury lists one Chief Mosikare as the chief financial officer of SASS.

It is understood that, before the spooks stepped in on Mbeki’s behalf and in the interests of continental peacemaking, late safety and security minister Steve Tshwete showed a personal interest in buying the property.

Asked why it was being sold, Daniels pointed the M&G to Kasrils’s speech during the budget vote in June on the secret services. Kasrils identified 10 priorities, including “the optimum utilisation of resources”. He said: “We must ensure that ... we avoid wasteful and superfluous expenditure.”

The budget for the civilian intelligence agencies this year is almost R1,98-billion, an increase of R316-million over last year and more than double the allocation in 2000.

Daniels said that after his budget speech Kasrils had embarked on wide consultations with Mbeki, Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel and members of the intelligence services to implement his 10 priorities. A report on this process talks of the “discontinuance of secondary projects and the disposal of redundant assets”.

Daniels said: “A consequence of [the process] is that the property is being sold.”

Article by: Stefaans Brümmer and Yolandi Groenewald | Johannesburg - www.fsp.co.za