Mossel Bay woman defends her Mauritian dream in face-off with suspicious investors.
In a threatening email sent to Noseweek after Miranda Hartzenberg Meyer became aware that we were investigating her businesses, she described herself as “a Mossel Bay girl building a dream resort in Mauritius against all odds”.
It appears, however, that this dream, known as the Sheraton Mauritius St Felix Resort and Residences, is still on the drawing board five years after Meyer first announced it on Facebook.
|Miranda Hartzenberg Meyer|
Meyer is CEO of the project’s managing company, Pelangi Resorts Holding (PRH) and MD of Clear Ocean Hotel and Resort Ltd (COHR), the developer who negotiated the leasehold with the Mauritian government.
In September 2016 Hartzenberg Meyer posted the following announcement on her Facebook page:
“Officially the moment of Truth and many answered prayers. Marriott/ Starwood is now officially the Pelangi Resorts operator. We are honoured not just to be in partnership with the world’s largest hotel group but to be the first deal to be signed on the 1st business day of the Marriott/Starwood Merger. God had always delivered more than I expected but in His timing and not mine. I am honoured to have been able to work with a very special man, Michael Devereux, who has kept me going and kept me focussed in times when I needed to hear a voice of comfort that all will be fine. Thank you Michael.”
With the announcement came a picture of the event. Michael Devereaux signed as Marriott’s Senior Director Development.
On Christmas Eve, 2017, she posted another: The Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation had just reported that “we are building a 5-star Sheraton Resort and that the community of the South supports the project.”
But another year on, as Noseweek went to press, building had yet to begin – and the local community are up in arms opposing the project.
Back home in South Africa things are not much better; there is a growing number of extremely unhappy South Africans who bought share options in several subsidiary companies said to be connected to Meyer’s proposed world-class holiday destination in the south of the island. They prefer to stay anonymous but most of them borrowed the US $10,000 (roughly R130,000) which gave them the exclusive option to eventually invest in the resort’s fitness centre, nursery, garden service, beauty parlours, hairdressing salons and marketing, once it opened its doors – supposedly in 2020.
At least two investors have discovered that they signed identical contracts for the same share options in the same subsidiary. A Mossel Bay family even moved to Mauritius, believing they could start work immediately. What they found on arrival was a deserted beach cordoned off with corrugatediron sheets – and hundreds of angry Mauritians fighting the proposed development tooth and nail.
|Mauritians have accused the developers of bringing apartheid to the island|
The money for the share options was paid into the bank account of Phoenix Trust, held at FNB in George. Sources told Noseweek that the trust had not been audited for several years and that Meyer is the only beneficiary.
Last year Meyer offered to refund her clients even though their contracts stipulated that options were nonrefundable. But she demanded that non-disclosure agreements be signed before the money was paid back and not everyone was willing to do that. Instead five people have opened criminal cases. The police in George and in Cape Town confirmed that they were investigating Miranda Hartzenberg Meyer for financial offences.
Hartzenberg Meyer allegedly also promised her clients residence and work permits in Mauritius and offered them salaries of as much as US$10,000 per month, should they take up employment at the resort. One person was supposed to have started work in January 2018 but after many promises and messages from Meyer, nothing came of the job offer.
Meyer says there were many delays in her application for the necessary permits and that local politics on the island have also played a role. She claims to have received the last two clearance permits only in January this year.
It is not the first time that Mossel Bay residents have tried to get Meyer to honour contracts or pay for damages. About ten years ago Van Rensburg Brothers Electrical Ltd laid charges of fraud against Meyer and her interior decorating company, MMI Projects (Pty) Ltd, trading as Miranda Meyer Interiors. The allegation was that Meyer short-paid the electrical company by more than R1 million for an order that was exported to a third party in Nigeria.
The circuit court ruled in Van Rensburg Electrical’s favour but Meyer defended the action on technical grounds and avoided payment. She did however honour another judgment in the lower court and paid Van Rensburg Electrical close to R31,000 as a final settlement.
But that’s nothing compared to the claims that the high-flying grandmother and former schoolteacher is now facing. Two Mossel Bay architects, Frik Wagenaar and Christo Botha, are to launch legal action against the directors of Clear Ocean Hotel and Resort Ltd as well as the Registrar of Companies and the Director of Liquidations in Mauritius, in which they are claiming damages of R32m. They say Meyer’s companies are mostly empty shells that are fraudulently misrepresenting ownership of the resort’s design when negotiating with potential funders.
A citizen’s group on the island, Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz (AKNL) which is Mauritian Creole for “Stop Stealing Our Beaches,” has also gone to court to stop construction at Pomponette Public Beach in the south of the island, the beach where Meyer plans to build her resort. The group says the Mauritian government development plan clearly states that no more hotels should be built along the island’s shoreline and that the planned resort also falls within the South Coast Heritage Zone of the island.
“Hotels, resorts and golf courses already occupy 90km of sandy beaches on the island and 1.1 million tourists enjoy about twice as much beach access as what 1.2 million Mauritians have,” says Carina Gounden, an active member of Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz. The group has filed a request for a judicial review at the Supreme Court two months after the Mauritian government granted leasehold to Clear Ocean Hotel and Resort Ltd in November 2016.
The court case is ongoing but despite the pending outcome a 60-year lease agreement between Meyer’s company COHR and the Mauritian government was signed in August 2017. It stated that construction should be finished within 36 months but Meyer claims she received an extension from the Mauritian government in 2018.
AKNL’s Yan Hookoomsing told Noseweek that the lease contract explicitly warned COHR that the outcome of the court case could negatively affect its project to the extent of having to pull down the hotel. He said: “The question is, which investor is going to put money into such a project?”
Another condition of the lease agreement is that all necessary permits be obtained prior to the start of construction. This includes an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a Building and Land Use Permit.
In a letter to AKNL in January 2017 the Ministry of Environment in Mauritius confirmed that an EIA licence was transferred from a different developer, Midas Acropolis, to Clear Ocean Hotel and Resort. Midas Acropolis obtained the EIA in 2007 when it had plans for a development at Pomponette beach. The company returned the land to the state in 2015 when a criminal investigation was launched against it.
AKNL says the outcome was never made public but barely a few weeks later Meyer’s company was granted a lease on the land.
Curiously Meyer had already announced on Facebook – in 2013 – that Pelangi Resorts Holding, of which she is the CEO, had obtained its EIA licence.
“This is false,” says Hookoomsing. At that time, Midas Acropolis still had control of the site and there are no official Ministry of Environment records online of a hotel project getting an EIA licence between September and December 2013.
AKNL is now demanding that all the records be made public.
Transferring an EIA is acceptable under the Mauritian Environment Protection Act of 2002, except that the number of buildings, built-up areas and location of structures in Clear Ocean’s plans differ substantially from the plans Midas Acropolis submitted years ago and for which it received an EIA licence. Midas Acropolis planned for 283 rooms while Clear Ocean’s marketing brochure shows 152 luxury hotel suites; 164 luxury condominium villas; four two-bedroom villas; 11 super villas; 15 tree houses; and a 250-seat conference room.
In November 2017 Clear Ocean Hotel and Resort put up a fence to cordon off the proposed construction site but members of AKNL and the public removed it shortly afterwards. A second fence was again taken down in May 2018. The area then became a war zone, says AKNL’s Gounden.
Video-material on AKNL’s Facebook page shows Meyer’s associates swearing at the AKNL group and shouting that the beach was now private property. Gounden says that at one point people armed with machetes were even guarding the beach (view footage here).
AKNL alleges that COHR has never applied for a building permit. “And the minute they apply we will object,” says Hookoomsing.
|Miranda Hartzenberg Meyer signing contracts with Marriott Hotels International|
Noseweek sent Miranda Hartzenberg Meyer 13 questions about the allegations in this story but only received several threatening emails in reply. The following is Meyer’s last response:
“We have an EIA but we asked to revise our EIA from 538 keys to 398 keys. This is what they required in order to apply for the revision, which Gibb [the construction firm] and Architects Studio has done already.
“This is not that simple [a] project or process and this is what some of these complaining individuals don’t understand. I have been trying to explain but if you [are] not on a certain level you will never understand. After five years I still get frustrated with ‘this-is-Mauritius’ arguments. I also got to learn the hard way [how] things work in Mauritius.
“I have asked Gibb Mauritius to provide you with a full report…
“I am just as tired and we have invested millions in this project and all I can do is work with the Government, Consultants, Pelangi PSP Team and our Funders and get this project off the Ground. We [are] all… pushing forward to get into the ground asap.
“We have instructed our legal team to once again request PSP individuals who want to cancel their options to do so. We have requested them to Sign the cancellation letters and sign NDA [non disclosure agreements] which they refused so we will be proceeding the legal way because they did sign agreements which are all still valid.
“You try and cancel your Virgin Active Membership. If you sign an agreement you [are] legally forced to obey this.
“It will be to your advantage to understand the process and status and not make serious mistakes in your article. This is an amazing green project that will provide 2,000 jobs in the South of the Island where people are very poor and have very few job opportunities.
“If you place an article with wrong facts your company will be legally liable and the loss and claims for damages could be high as this is a $360m project which has taken a lot of investment and effort with various partners to get to the point where we are ready to start construction.
“I really believe you need to also speak to a few local councillors and understand how hard we have been working.
“You are now focussing on the negative of a handful of individuals who changed their minds for various personal reasons and then started a witch hunt.
“I have a board resolution from the Pelangi Board that we agree to cancel their options with a refund. They might now change their approach and claim damages and force the individuals to adhere to the Terms and Conditions of their agreements.
" I am happy to clarify any allegations as all is 100% not true.
“This project is for Real and we going to Build it and we are 100% within the law of Mauritius with full Cabinet support.”
Yet another email was sent five minutes later:
“The EIA was in the name of Midas Acropolis and we were their JV Partner.
“The Government changed in 2014 and I had to re-apply with 100% ownership which I obtained with the noncitizen certificate I sent to you.
“We struggled to fit the units we have on our land, our Coverage should be less than 20% and the only way we could get to this number was to revise our EIA by applying to have fewer keys from 538 keys to 398 which will have a positive impact on the EIA…
“This has been an uphill battle and we have now reached the final stretch where we can go into the ground.
“As you can imagine you will always have a few individuals who change their mind, get jealous or get upset with somebody in a company.
“How do we cancel the agreements from our side that are valid? No timelines as per the terms and conditions has even lapsed and we allowed for automatic extensions due to the unknown we were dealing with.”
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