Long court battle over Lahleni Lakes development drags on
Billionaire Joe Singh may have celebrated his court win last month prematurely, as his former business partner is refusing to cry defeat.
Ralston Smith, left, and Joe Singh.
The dust has hardly settled since Mpumalanga coal baron Joe Singh celebrated victory last month in his six-year battle against former business partner Ralston Smith and then the latter filed papers requesting leave to appeal the February ruling.
Singh and Smith have fought each other in their major property dispute in the courts for years. Smith alleges he was unscrupulously removed from the business they shared. He also disputes the settlement amount.
While their legal battle rages on, the investors and stand holders who first bought into the development more than a decade ago continue to wait for the day when the project finally gets under way again.
Last month, High Court in Pretoria Judge Ronel Tolmay found that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that paved the way for Smith’s removal as the majority shareholder of One Vision Investment was valid.
One Vision owns the Lahleni Lakes Golf Estate in Mpumalanga. The company is at the centre of a protracted battle between Smith and Singh.
Smith accuses Singh – reportedly a billionaire – of failing to meet crucial conditions of the MOU that would have seen him take control of 100% of the shares of Lahleni Lakes.
The matter has in the last several years played out in different courts, with Smith maintaining he was fraudulently removed as a director of Lahleni Lakes.
He claims that after Singh failed to legally take over the estate he resorted to fraud and used a forged signature to facilitate the takeover.
In court papers Smith filed, he alleges Singh and his general manager Peet Erasmus orchestrated the takeover.
Singh has failed twice already in his bid to have the matter quashed – first in the high court and then at the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in Bloemfontein.
Initially, Judge Christelle Basson sitting in North Gauteng ruled that the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) must probe complaints by business owners who alleged their companies or shares were “hijacked”.
In a bid to stop the CIPC probe, Singh took the matter to the SCA, where his legal team led by advocate Danie van Loggerenberg argued, among other things, that the CIPC had no jurisdiction to investigate Smith’s complaints.
The court dismissed Singh’s appeal with costs.
Undeterred by the SCA, Singh brought a related matter before the High Court in Pretoria, where he asked Judge Tolmay to order Smith to negotiate a settlement with him.
Singh insists that Smith quit of his own accord and must accept payment of R14 million as a final settlement.
However, Smith denies he entered into any such agreement to give up his share of the company and instead accuses Singh, or people acting on his behalf, of forging his signature to enable the unlawful takeover.
In her ruling in February, Justice Tolmay found that the “MOU, as incorporated in the sale of equity and the cession, is declared valid and binding on the parties”.
But Smith argues this finding is wrong and a higher court may come to a different conclusion. Smith maintains Singh failed to meet the suspensive conditions of the MOU, which meant the deal fell aside.
In papers filed at the High Court in Pretoria requesting leave to appeal, Smith claims the learned judge erred in her ruling.
He says: “… with respect, (she) erred in finding as such and there are reasonable prospects that the proposed appeal will be successful and that it will be held that the suspensive conditions were not fulfilled,” reads Smith’s application.
He added that the learned judge “with respect erred in the following respects: ‘The requirement was that the person referred to as Singh settles the Absa facility with Absa 30 (thirty) days of the date of signature of this Agreement’.”
Moreover, Smith argued that the payment had to be effected within 30 days of the signature of the MOU.
Additionally, Smith wanted to know why the judge ruled that a fraudulent document was valid even with the admission of the culprit who forged the signature.
“There was no evidence that the first applicant (Singh) in fact notified CIPC accordingly, the sole evidence being that of a fraud committed by Mr Jan van Dyk who admitted that he had forged the first applicant’s signature in documents submitted to the CIPC as the learned judge correctly found in paragraph  of her judgment,” reads Smith’s application.
After the ruling in February, Singh said in a statement celebrating his victory: ”It is with great relief that the matter has finally been put to rest and it is for this reason that Mr Singh and One Vison have broken the silence and wish to share with media and the public the outcome of the six-year long battle, whereby the court has ruled in favour of Mr Singh and One Vision.”
Singh said Smith should accept the settlement payment and the long-running matter should be closed.
Although the matter was put before the courts last week, a date for the request for leave to appeal has not yet been set.
The battle continues.
(Edited by Charles Cilliers)