Corruption busting vs defamation in Lowveld court case
A well-known Limpopo businessman is suing the editor of a small Lowveld newspaper, Kruger2Canyon, for R500 000 in a defamation case described by the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) as having “elements of intimidation and censorship by individuals with significant power”.
The head of the FXI’s law clinic, Sheniece Linderboom, said she believed the suit –which centres on a controversial Hoedspruit water deal– involved “a violation of the right to freedom of expression, specifically press freedom”.
The institute is carrying the legal costs of the Kruger2Canyon editor, Heidi Lee Smith. The case, in which the DA’s Limpopo leader Jacques Smalle is also being sued, is to be heard in the Pretoria High Court in September.
In an apparent reference to the apparent collapse of the water project, property developer Soren Nielsen said “1,500 unemployed people could have been breadwinners, if it was not for the mafia”.
“Since the Broederbond/DA decided to make an all-out attempt to destroy me, I have had to close my construction/development company and move from a mansion to a three-bedroom townhouse with my four children and coloured wife.”
The R500,000 he is demanding from both defendants “is small compared to what I have lost”.
Nielsen said the FXI must be careful not to support “unethical and un-independent ‘community’ newspapers”, and described editor Smith as “a devious and nasty person intent on destroying the lives of as many men as possible.
“I am more scared of Heidi Lee Smith than Radovan Krejcir,” he added.
At issue is a 2012 agreement between the Lepelle Northern Water Board and Nielsen’s company Southern Palace 440 (SP). This provided for Lepelle to supply the company with 10 million cubic metres of raw water a year from the Blyde dam for 30 years at a tariff of R0.08 per cubic metre (approximately R800,000 per year).
Allegations then surfaced that Southern Palace planned to sell the water to Hoedspruit farmers at R0.15 per cubic metre – nearly double the purchase price.
In his summons, Nielsen complains about a DA statement in May 2013 that SP was “allegedly hawking water to Hoedspruit farmers at grossly inflated prices” and which claimed that the Blue Scorpions were investigating.
He also takes issue with the Smalle’s call on the Limpopo government “to investigate how a water board could illegally have sub-contracted services”, and with its assertion that “corrupt contractors and authorities that do not respect the value of water end up causing unnecessary hardship for families as well as loss of income for businesses”.
Kruger2Canyon reproduced much of the statement a week later under the headline “Estate developer allegedly involved in water corruption”.
Nielsen lives at, and is said to have developed, the Blyde Wildlife Estate in Hoedspruit. In his court papers he says that the DA statement and Kruger2Canyon article portray SP as “an unethical organisation involved in questionable business practices”.
In their plea Smith and the DA say their statements were “in essence true” and in the public interest.
Farmers Weekly, which also reported on the controversy, quoted Lepelle spokesperson Simon Maponyane as saying that Lepelle had entered an agreement with SP for bulk water supply “to their proposed developments. We were not aware of selling water to the users”.
Maponyane failed to answer questions put to him over a three-week period, at one stage saying that he would first have to consult his lawyers. He also asked whether amaBhungane was the DA’s partner, saying: “If it is we would be very disappointed.”
Local farmer Jurie van Vuuren, a spokesperson for the Lower Blyde River Users Association, said SP’s plan to sell water collapsed after he wrote to farmers warning them that he believed a water supply contract they had reached with the company contained illegal elements.
“The farmers had paid money to a trust fund held by Nielsen’s attorney. The money was later returned to the farmers.”
Van Vuuren claimed SP was not a water service company and had no licence to sell water. In 2013 the association submitted a complaint to the water affairs department, but had received no response. Blue Scorpions head Nigel Adams promised to answer amaBhungane’s questions about whether the deal is being, or has been, investigated, but failed to do so.
This week Nielsen refused to say what had happened to the deal, saying he would only comment after the court case.
However, Farmers Weekly quoted him as saying that at a meeting of the Limpopo premier, Lepelle, water affairs and his company it was agreed that instead of SP applying for its own water licence, Lepelle would supply it according to the bulk service agreement.
“SP will not give up on creating jobs [and] make some money in the process. It will be a long struggle with the mighty Broederbond/DA, as they control Hoedspruit media, the water users association and the water licensing office at the DWA in Pretoria,” he said.
Pharie Sefali is a GroundUp reporter currently doing a three month internship at the Mail & Guardian’s investigative reporting centre AmaBhungane.
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