Divorce of wealthy couple leaves ex-wife almost destitute – but she holds a trump card.
The ex-wife of a prominent Vryheid pig farmer has won an almost five-year battle against liquidators after she was sequestrated and left without a penny to her name.
The formidable team of seasoned liquidators, represented by the insolvency department of Africa’s largest law firm ENS, includes Pietermaritzburg liquidator Pierre Berrangé, ENS liquidation specialist Adam Lombard and Pietermaritzburg auctioneer Peter Maskell – all were outmanoeuvred by divorcee Renata Volker.
|Renata Mignon Volker|
From the outset, Renata maintained that the liquidation of the family business that she and ex-husband Thomas Volker once owned was nothing more than a sham put in motion by Thomas and his team of “legal hitmen-for-hire” plus a bit of help from his bankers, First National Bank and First Rand Bank. Their aim, says Renata, was to make sure she got nothing in the divorce settlement – a claim her ex-husband and Berrangé deny.
In November, after the liquidators had been in occupation of the family farm for four years and had made numerous attempts to seize and sell it, they hurriedly vacated the property after Renata obtained a court interdict forbidding them to sell any more equipment from the farm to fund their fees.
Berrangé and team now face the very real possibility of a damages claim and have already been reported to the Master of the High Court, while Maskell has been reported to the South African Council for the Property Valuers Profession.
Court records spread over several years and in multiple courts from Paulspietersburg to Pretoria and Pietermaritzburg – reveal how Thomas Volker devised a strategy with Berrangé and his divorce lawyer, Gert Vonkeman, along with KwaZulu-Natal Advocate Eddie Lotz, to dismantle his family business, Penvaan Group of Companies, and – as Renata has consistently maintained – leave his ex-wife with nothing.
The audacious plan might have worked had it not been for a simple oversight that neither bank, liquidator nor pig farmer could overcome. Renata had control of the family trust, and the trust owned all the land where the main family business operated.
The significant point is that the trust had no debt so could not be liquidated to force the sale of the farm. The land could only change hands if the trust agreed to sell. It was practically impossible to sell the business separately from the land as all the houses, piggeries and other farm buildings, worth millions of rands, were firmly fixed to the land. All potential buyers of the business were only prepared to buy from Berrangé on condition that they also got the land.
|Thomas Volker with new wife Monika|
What was and is essentially a family feud began as far back as 2010 when Thomas wanted to divorce Renata after he found a new love interest in local Vryheid resident Monika Bates.
All along Renata maintained that the liquidation was a sham, a claim her ex-husband and Berrangé have denied.
“Thomas deliberately liquidated the companies in order to avoid paying me my share of the Joint Estate and maintenance. He colluded with Mr Berrangé, one of the joint liquidators, to have the companies liquidated in the hope of buying them back cheaply.”
Renata accuses Maskell of having deliberately and illegally undervalued both immovable and movable property and of being a front for her ex-husband, to allow him to “buy back” the Volkers’ business assets.
Prior to the divorce and liquidation the family ran successful piggeries, a meat wholesale business and a feed manufacturing plant. They reared cattle, grew timber and also owned several farms and properties in Pretoria and Cape Town. The annual turnover was approximately R100 million. Their assets were in excess of R80m and their liabilities were about R40m.
The matrimonial home was a R10m mansion which they had built with the intention of eventually turning it into a boutique hotel. Renata continues to live in it.
By early 2013 the couple’s divorce proceedings were winding up. Thomas was in talks with his divorce attorney Gert Vonkeman, accountant Guy McEwan and Advocate Eddie Lotz. It is through these meetings that Thomas and his advisors decided to liquidate the family business, a process they initiated by sending what was dubbed “the suicide letter” to ENS, the major law firm that then represented First National Bank and First Rand Bank – the company’s biggest creditors – asking them to wind up the businesses.
The lawyer in ENS’s liquidations department (headed by Leonard “Lennie the Liquidator” Katz) who handled the matter, was Adam Lombard, who often writes a column about liquidations that is syndicated in newspapers belonging to the Independent Media group.
The letter painted a grim picture of the group’s flagship businesses, Penvaan Feeds and Penvaan Estates, which manufactured animal feed, had timber plantations and farmed pigs. These were key businesses in the integrated group. The letter stated that these two companies owed the creditors R28,5m and owed FNB a further R25m.
It said that if the bank didn’t act quickly, the fate of 4,000 pigs hung in the balance, as there was no money to feed them and other creditors might obtain court orders against the group.
“We have so advised the joint director of the companies, TW Volker, that the circumstances set forth hereunder will have a negative effect on the exposure of FNB, the security of FNB and the recovery of the debt of the said two companies by FNB”, read Vonkeman’s letter.
“By virtue of the above-mentioned facts, we believe the position of the companies to be extremely precarious,” said the letter.
On 19 March 2013 FNB rushed to attach Penvaan Feeds and Penvaan Estates – other businesses in the group were added at a later stage – and launched an urgent court application for the liquidation of the companies.
On 22 March 2013 the North Gauteng High Court placed the companies into provisional liquidation and by that afternoon Pierre Berrangé wrote a letter to the Master of the High Court to be appointed liquidator. Five days later he provided the Master with a R20m surety bond to secure his appointment as liquidator of the companies and on 6 May 2013 the liquidation order was made final.
Prior to receiving the “suicide letter”, FNB had given no indication that they were contemplating putting the companies into liquidation.
Renata’s assertion that the liquidation was unnecessary and was deliberately manufactured to cut her out of her share in the divorce is given credence through several incidents preceding and shortly after the liquidation.
On 23 February 2013, a month before the surprise liquidation was set in motion, the Penvaan Group had been offered R24m by the Department of Rural Development and Land Affairs for one of their businesses that was based on another farm. It was part of a land claim by the Zagila Community. The state was willing to make the purchase an order of the court. Renata had been keen to make the sale, Thomas had not.
When the companies were placed under provisional liquidation, KZN valuer Alan Stephenson who had been contracted by Renata’s divorce lawyers to undertake valuations of the company’s fixed assets, informed Berrangé about the government offer. But Berrangé ignored it, only to resurrect it eight months later after the final liquidation order, and sold for R23,4m, earning a sizable fee from the sale. If this sale had been concluded when Berrangé was first informed, Renata believes the entire liquidation could have been halted.
Furthermore it later became evident to both Renata and Thomas that Berrangé’s chosen auctioneer Maskell had a penchant for undervaluing their assets.
In April 2016 Thomas told two creditors in a recorded meeting that Berrangé and Maskell “screwed” him out of his fleet of vehicles by drastically under-selling them. He also claimed they had made half the value disappear.
“Berrangé and them [sic] took irregularly for themselves. I can bring a case against them because it is actually my money that they have stolen,” Thomas told the creditors.
Nevertheless with the liquidation in motion Berrangé and Thomas had a big problem: without the trust’s land the liquidation value was limited. They needed control of the trust.
The second problem was that, while the trust had three trustees, namely Renata, Thomas, and an independent from Pretoria called Johannes de Witt, De Witt always voted with Renata, giving her control of the trust.
Renata stated in court papers that she was approached by Berrangé and Thomas “on more than one occasion, [to say] that if we did not agree to the disposal of the trust property, hundreds of pigs would have to be euthanized, that the SPCA would have to become involved and that I was being unreasonable and unrealistic in refusing to sell the trust property”.
She said no.
So to get around this problem first FNB, through ENS, tried to liquidate the trust, claiming it had signed surety over the companies being wound up. However in March 2014 Pietermaritzburg High Court Judge Poyo Dlwati said Thomas was the only trustee who had signed the suretyship on behalf of the trust and therefore it was not binding.
Then eight months later, Berrangé brought a high court application against the trust, claiming it had been unfairly enriched to the value of R16,46m by the company’s improvements on the land. This matter still hasn’t been finalised.
Then in February 2016 a third option arose: sequestrate Renata, effectively removing her as trustee of the trust. Thomas would gain control and sell the land – or at least that was the plan.
The trust, in the meantime, had turned to the courts, claiming the liquidators were in illegal occupation of the land, having never paid a rental and wanting them evicted. This matter too has yet to be concluded.
Due to the nature of the tit-for-tat legal wrangle that has dragged on since 2013, FNB at one stage obtained a cost order against Renata for R181,100. It was for this that they decided to sequestrate her.
Renata was broke. She had not received an income for several years and Thomas had reneged on the maintenance order, claiming poverty despite it being common knowledge that he was still working under the guise of another company registered in the name of his new love (and now, wife) Monika Bates.
Renata claimed that by 2016 Thomas owed her at least R600,000.
Berrangé, who rubbished Renata’s multiple claims, blamed her for her own misfortune. “It does not lie in the mouth of [Renata] to complain that she has no income and no means of support, taking into account her outrageous and unreasonable demands. She is and remains the author of her own misfortune,” he told the court.
Renata had wanted half the estate and had obtained a R20,000-a-month maintenance order from Thomas, which he never paid.
Berrangé said that, had Renata “adopted a reasonable and common- sense attitude during the divorce proceedings”, her sequestration would not have happened.
Thomas admitted at the April 2016 creditors’ meeting that the sequestration was less about the debt owed and more about gaining control of the trust. He said it was “good news” that “FNB brought an application to have my ex-wife sequestrated”.
Once she was removed as trustee, he said, he’d call a meeting with De Witt (the Pretoria trustee) and they would vote on the sale of the farm. Thomas said he had a casting vote and if this wasn’t successful he had a new trustee lined up. “That was the whole idea why they sequestrated her,” said Thomas.
After initially opposing the move, Renata was sequestrated in March 2017.
In her “Statement of Debtors Affairs” submitted to the court Renata said “my ex-husband and Pierre Berrangé have left me with the clothes that I wear and some jewellery which is of little value”.
“The reason for my insolvency is that my ex-husband TW Volker colluded with Adv Eddie Lotz, Attorneys Gert Vonkeman and Adam Lombard of ENS, Accountant Guy McEwan and various officials of FNB and FRB, to sequestrate the Penvaan group of companies of which my ex-husband and I were joint directors.”
But Thomas and Berrangé never gained control of the trust. The trust deed stipulated that family must be appointed, so Thomas and Renata’s three sons were duly nominated in about August 2017. They too begrudged their father, and siding with their mother, chose not to vote for his sale proposals.
Instead, on 3 November 2017, the trust successfully moved to obtain an interdict stopping Maskell and Berrangé from selling any more assets, including the 130 hectares of timber on the farm. In the interdict they raised the issue of the liquidators’ not paying any rent and that their occupation of the farm was illegal.
This interdict was a mortal blow. Knowing the game was up, and keen to safeguard the R20m suretyship they had given the Master of the High Court, Berrangé and ENS decided on immediately exiting the farm.
A week later, on 13 November, Lombard informed the trust lawyers Shepstone and Wylie that they would vacate the premises by 18 November, which would involve the “disconnection of the electricity”. He said any claims that they had damaged the properties had “no basis for any such claims” as had been raised by valuer Stephenson in previous correspondence.
Estelle de Wet from Shepstone and Wylie called the liquidators’ action of cutting off the electricity a “grave inconvenience” which had left Renata, literally living in the dark.
“This conduct is not only grossly unreasonable but is clearly calculated to make life as difficult as possible for our client who, to your client’s know-ledge, lives on the property and whose safety will now be at risk,” said De Wet.
Lombard’s response: “Our clients’ conduct is not aimed at making your client’s life difficult. The disconnection of the electricity is only aimed at minimising the costs of administration. We therefore suggest that your client makes arrangements to begin paying for her own consumption”.
De Wet replied: “There is no point in debating this issue with you. The fact remains that two days’ notice cannot possibly be considered to be reasonable in any circumstances, and the only inference to be drawn is that your clients intended to inconvenience our client as much as possible.”
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