How would you react if you learned out of the blue that your golf club and attractive 18-hole parkland course was being sold to property developers without the prior knowledge of any members?
That’s what happened to the Wingate Park Country Club membership in May. They received a four-page letter, dated May 13, from club president Gerrie Nel, the advocate who prosecuted Oscar Pistorius, in which he informed them that WPCC was in the process of being sold to a developer who had offered R400 million to purchase the entire property.
The 3 000 members of the country club learned to their disbelief that a date of June 30, 2023 had been set as the closing date of operations for a course ranked No 49 in the Top 100. This would affect not only golfers, but the substantial other club sections of bowlers, tennis players and runners. Wingate, with five rinks, regularly hosts major bowls tournaments, and is the only club to have been home to the SA Masters in golf and bowls.
We now know that the sale of this popular club wasn’t to be the fait accompli presented to members by their president.
Instead the members faced down the club’s governing body and the interests of a group called the Foundation Members at a special general meeting and voted unanimously against their recommendation that they go ahead and approve a proposed offer to purchase from the developer.
Wingate Park is thus hopefully safe for the future as one of South Africa’s premier golfing experiences and bowls venue.
It’s important to know the history of Wingate Park to understand how this situation had arisen at a profitable and successful club, which adheres to its objective of providing outstanding sports facilities. It is the busiest 18-hole course in Gauteng, having put through more than 60 000 rounds in 2021. And it provides a service to the local community as one of the few remaining green lungs open to the public in the wider Moraleta Park area.
WPCC was founded in 1947 by members of the Jewish community in Pretoria to establish a sports and recreational club “where everyone was welcome.” The community had been denied access to other sporting and country clubs due to prevailing antisemitism. Farm land east of the city was purchased through the issue of debentures to members of the community. The club was named after Orde Wingate, a British Army officer who became a supporter of Zionism and backed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine during the late 1930s.
These debenture holders were known as Foundation Members.
President Nel explained in his letter that the Foundation Members evidently had the power to dissolve the club at any time of their choosing. Their descendants had presented the WPCC governing body with an offer to purchase from the developer, after approving the sale at a special meeting on May 9. The governing body agreed to support the process to avoid the consequences of clause 20 of the club constitution being invoked. This was the Foundation Members’ power to immediately dissolve the club.
Nel confirms in his letter that the governing body had accepted the sale as being inevitable. Without yet informing the membership, they set about attempting to ensure the best deal possible for staff and members.
It was agreed that the net proceeds of the sale of assets, once the club was wound up, would be split 75% to public benefit organisations supporting the Jewish community, and 25% to a sporting institution similar to WPCC as determined by the members. However, as it was clear that no single club in Pretoria could take on the entire membership, the Foundation Members had agreed to amend the constitution to allow this 25% be paid out to eligible members in the form of a refund of subscription fees.
Even though they were convinced the sale was inevitable, the governing body did not sign the Offer to Purchase. They agreed, as stated in the letter, that it would be preferable to consult the members first. They “would prefer to have a mandate from the members recommending that we sign the OTP, rather than just forging ahead.” A special general meeting was called at short notice.
Nel’s message to members in conclusion to his letter was that “I sincerely hope you can understand the gravity of the situation and that you will provide us with your vote to approve this sale. I feel we have managed to get the best deal possible for every single person who is part of the Wingate family.”
The members, though, were not of the same mind as Nel and the other eight members of the governing body. The SGM was attended by some 450 members and they voted overwhelmingly against the sale. Independent legal opinion supported the members’ decision, confirming that the Foundation Members had no power to dissolve the club.
The club was approached for comment.