When Russian billionaire Rashid Sardarov told Elena Morales that “you look after me, I look after you”, she did not know that she would be suspended from her job within six months.
After all, Sardarov was described as one of the friendliest Russians who interacted with workers at his Marula Game Ranch at the billionaire’s farm near Dordabis, about 100 kilometres south-east of Windhoek.
However, it only took about three months before Morales started questioning how things were done.
These details were gleaned from documents submitted to the Labour Court as part of the ongoing labour cases against Sardarov’s company.
Her husband, Willa-Kempen Liebenberg, a professional hunter and farmer for 30 years, was the second-in-charge at Sardarov’s farm, and worked on the same farm for land barons who sold the property to Sardarov in 2012 for N$120 million.
Other information is obtained from interviews with the lawyer of the two, Clement Daniels.
The 56-year-old Morales was employed as a lodge manager at Sardarov’s smaller lodge in 2016, and was promoted in 2017 to take charge of the N$300 million-valued Marula Game Lodge.
The couple was, however, suspended in August last year after they complained to Igor Rybakov against Marula Game Ranch general manager Johan Kotze over several irregularities at the farm.
Liebenberg and Morales wrote a strongly worded letter in May 2017 to Sardarov’s right-hand man, Rybakov, who was in charge of the billionaire’s Namibian businesses.
The two said they had about 30 concerns “that are potentially illegal” and could “attract criminal prosecution” about the operations of the Russian billionaire’s company.
Their concerns included claims of irregularities at the farms, such as the disappearance of wild animals, burying of anthrax-infected rhinos, possible bribery and corruption. But they are reportedly not sure if the letter was delivered to him, because they received no formal reply from him.
The two managers also questioned the alleged purchase of wild animals from South Africa’s Kruger National Park over the years to Sardarov’s farms.
According to the two managers, the wild animals were not bought from the Kruger National Park as perceived because they did not have identification tags. They also suspected that some animals were bought elsewhere.
“Certain animals died, and there is an obvious concern as to where their horns are, considering that not all [animals] died from anthrax,” the two managers stated.
The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported in February this year that nine of the 13 rhinos imported by Marula allegedly died after contracting anthrax, or fighting among themselves.
The disposal of the rhinos in that manner could cause a serious public health hazard if employees or poachers want to exhume the bodies to remove the horns. The dismissed managers also feared that other animals such as hippos were dying because of negligence.
The Russian tycoon was also warned that the fence at his farm was substandard and constructed at an inflated price.
“The fact is that the fence is not up to required standards, and requires ongoing repairs,” the letter by the two managers stated.
The letter continued: “Big poles have been found to only have been planted approximately 40cm deep, and not in cement; the fence runs through the river without support boxes; and the fence is now being supported by inserting poor-quality plastic droppers.”
Another concern raised in the letter is that Liebenberg’s advice regarding constructing the fence through riverbeds was not entertained.
“The fence now needs to be repaired in the riverbeds because the rivers did run and damaged the substandard constructed fence,” the letter said.
Safety concerns about the multimillion-dollar fence were not only about poor quality.
“We are very concerned by the fact that the nature conservation certificate compliance regarding the property’s boundary fence has been obtained under the circumstances it has, months before the fence was completed,” the managers said.
According to the two, “this leads one to deduce that the concerned certificate was irregularly obtained, which might lead to criminal prosecution for potential charges such as bribery and/or corruption.”
Under normal circumstances, the environment ministry cancels a fence permit if a game ranch is found to have a substandard fence.
Another concern was that 10 antelopes went missing from the farm, and were never found.
“There was the incident in 2015 when 205 impalas were purchased, yet only 199 were offloaded, as per eyewitness, “ the letter said, adding that there are fewer wild animals than there should be on the property.
PROMISES IN THE DARK
The government recently approved to lease four farms for 99 years to Sardarov – in addition to five farms that he already occupied – based on a promise that the Russian billionaire will invest about N$1 billion, creating hundreds of tourism jobs, and boost nature conservation.
The letter to Sardarov’s top executive now paints a picture of disgruntled workers, including complaints about poor salaries and lack of working uniforms.
The letter also claims that Marula Game Lodge women workers often come late to work because of the lack of transport. “They must either walk to work, or wait for Ms Morales to collect them,” the suspended managers said.
The couple wrote another letter to Sardarov on 15 December 2017, pleading with him to investigate their concerns.
“Mr Sardarov you have appointed us to perform essential functions on Marula Game Range, and it is our duty to bring irregularities and unlawful and harmful activities to your attention,” the two said in a letter addressed to the billionaire via his son Timur.
The letter was an attempt by the managers to contact Sardarov because they believed that their communication was being blocked by people with the billionaire’s ears, such as the other farm manager Kotze, and Sardarov’s Namibian director, Rybakov.
The labour disputes are ongoing, and the Russian is said to have hired a South African senior advocate to grill workers who raised concerns about the working conditions at the farm.
Daniels, who is representing the two dismissed managers, told The Namibian this week that he wants his clients reinstated and concerns about the management of the Russian-owned farms rectified.
Daniels stated that his clients are not blaming Sardarov for the labour dispute, but there are concerns that the tycoon is not properly briefed by his directors about the irregularities on his farms.
Besides the two managers, the lawyer is also representing Annastacia Majiedt, another worker who was fired by Sardarov’s company.
Majiedt was a housekeeper at the Russian’s farm.
Daniels said her case is also pending at the Office of the Labour Commissioner after she was dismissed for refusing to testify against Morales.
Marula Game Ranch general manager Kotze said yesterday that Sardarov’s Namibian lawyer, Sisa Namandje, will answer media questions.
Namandje told The Namibian yesterday that the allegations made by the two managers are not new since they are over a year old.
“Those allegations are nothing new. Those comments were made by a spiteful employee who made those allegations upon being charged with a disciplinary offence. They were found guilty and dismissed,” the lawyer said.
He said he cannot answer in detail because the case is still being dealt with by the Labour Court.
Namandje said there is no truth in allegations that Sardarov is implicated in any irregularities.