> The story of a Chinese kindergarten teacher who became a billion Rand property mogul in Namibia.
By TILENI MONGUDHI, SHINOVENE IMMANUEL and TUTALENI PINEHAS
Stina Wu arrived in Namibia from China with little more than a suitcase 22 years ago. She was 19 years old and had previously only worked as a kindergarten teacher.
Now, aged 41, she owns land and buildings in the heart of Namibia’s major urban centres, like Windhoek, Rundu, Oshakati, Karibib and Okahandja.
She is considered among Namibia's prime property owners.
Wu and her husband came to Namibia under a government policy designed to attract investment from China.
The Namibian’s investigative unit investigated some of Wu's businesses for the past four years through speaking to people who worked with her, visiting some of her businesses, and going through publicly available company and deeds documents.
Her empire, which some estimate to be over R1 billion, was built from scratch. Her close ties to politicians and top government officials is credited to be her recipe for success.
Land reform minister Utoni Nujoma, police inspector general Sebastian Ndeitunga, former Okahandja mayor Valerie Aron and councillors in several towns rank among her friends, or so she says.
Her property holdings include four shopping centres in four towns, a hotel in Windhoek and two housing developments at Rundu.
THE EARLY YEARS
Wu – real name Qiaoxia Wu – started small. Government sources said she started making money as an agent facilitating permits and residency papers for Chinese businesspeople. She also set up a 'China Shop' in Windhoek.
People familiar with her businesses said Wu then started setting up companies for businesspeople based in China so that by the time they arrived in Namibia the groundwork had been laid. Having a business in Namibia makes it easier to get permanent residence status.
Wu obtained Namibian permanent residency on 27 April 2004, documents show.
She said she chose Namibia because she heard a lot of good things about it from her husband.
“I was doing mainly import and export business,” she told The Namibian in an interview this week.
Wu got her start in the property market in December 2007, when she bought 1.5 hectares of land from the Oshakati Town Council in northern Namibia, where she built the Etango Shopping Complex. Municipal sources said the property is now estimated to be worth more than R41 million.
She then set her sights on the northeastern town of Rundu. In May 2008, she bought a one-hectare plot to build the Galaxy Shopping Mall.
Now Rundu’s largest shopping complex, it houses more than 50 shops.
Wu saw other opportunities to acquire property at Rundu. She saw a gap in the housing market at the town and took advantage of it.
Acting Rundu council chief executive Sikongo Haihambo confirmed to The Namibian this month that Wu owns or is represented in at least four projects, including the Galaxy Shopping Mall valued at R38 million.
The others are Rainbow Housing Development, comprising 251 houses; a hotel development through Cross Century Properties; and a 550-house project at Kaisosi on the outskirts of Rundu, which falls under the Helmsman Group.
The land deals in Rundu made headlines after she sent then mayor Gosbert Mandema and his former deputy, Hilka Leevi, went on an all-expenses-paid trip to China in 2010.
A title deed search shows that Wu bought a 3 500 square metre plot from the council in 2011 for R17 000 – or R5 a square metre.
Other developers at Rundu said at the time the market price was R20 a square metre, meaning ordinarily the land would cost R70,000.
In 2012, according to media reports, Wu paid for another trip to China for top Rundu officials, including the then-new chairperson of the management committee Johannes Murenga.
Leevi, who was also part of the second group, told The Namibian in 2012 that the officials visited the port city of Xiamen and Sanming City in Fujian province, where Wu was born.
She denied there was anything improper about the trips, saying they were aimed at attracting investment from China.
In July 2012, a few months before the second China trip, Wu bought a 17-hectare plot at Rundu for R870,000. The aim was a housing development named the Rundu Rainbow Village.
Property deeds seen by The Namibian show that Wu divided the land into more than 200 plots for housing. She then sold ready-built houses for R350,000, raking in more than R70 million.
Wu's other major property investment has been at Okahandja, 70km north of Windhoek.
The Ever-Lasting Iron Sheet Investment Close Corporation, which she owns, bought 5,100 square metres of municipal land for R200,000 in June 2011 with the intention of setting up a roof sheeting factory and brickmaking factory.
An urban ministry investigation, conducted in 2014 and seen by The Namibian, alleged that Wu bought several municipal plots in Okahandja for R4 a square metre. Residents pay R15 a square metre.
The ministry also alleged that she was awarded two plots without applying for them.
“There is no explanation in the council resolution why the additional plots were given. We could also not find any payment for the three erven,” investigators said.
"The company still owes the council R1.6 million,” the report said.
Deeds documents show that the five erven include a 5,100 square metre plot sold to Wu for R200,000.
The probe also suggested that there should be an investigation to determine whether Wu financed former Okahandja mayor Valerie Aron's lavish new home. That investigation was never carried out.
Aron, who was mayor until 2015, is now a spokesperson for Wu’s Helmsman Group.
Aron is not the only former high-ranking official in her company.
Former Helao Nafidi town chief executive, Chris Shivolo, is a shareholder and managing partner of Helmsman Group with Wu.
Shivolo was fired in 2008 for finalising the sale of land at Oshikango to Chinese businesspeople such as Jack Huang. Shivolo claims that he found the agreements to sell land to Huang already there when he started work at the council.
In recent months, Wu has been on a public relations drive. She has arranged meetings with selected reporters to tell her story and to promote her latest business: The 59-room Marigold Hotel located close to the Game shopping centre in Windhoek.
Wu held a media event at which she unveiled a sponsorship of more than 200 desks and 200 chairs for the Etunda Farm Primary School situated on former president Sam Nujoma’s farm. The donation was made via the Helmsman Group of Companies.
Wu said her father had helped her fund the construction of the hotel, which cost R120 million.
She said she plans to add 100 more rooms to the Windhoek hotel and satellite operations in smaller towns such as Walvis Bay and Rundu.
She said her group of companies also plans to build a low-cost Marigold Express Hotel opposite the Game shopping centre.
In addition, Wu also owns a new shopping centre – Kingsway Plaza – across from the Wernhil Park Shopping Centre – next to Cymot, in Windhoek’s CBD. She owns 35% of Kingsway Plaza.
“It is currently worth around R48 million, but our intention is to demolish the existing building and build an entirely new and modern building with offices, apartments and shopping spaces, which will consist of about 21 floors,” she said.
Wu owned two houses in Windhoek – one in Ludwigsdorf valued at R7 million, while another house in Eros is said to be valued at R9 million.
“I had to sell these houses to have additional funds for the completion of my 5-star Marigold Hotel in Windhoek,” she said.
Wu said she now resides at her Windhoek hotel and also owns Fujian City Mall, opposite China Town in Windhoek valued at more than R27 million.
She is also involved in the development of more than 250 houses at Ehenye and Ekuku at Oshakati.
Wu is regarded as politically connected and feared within the Namibian Chinese community. Ndeitunga told The Namibian last year that he is close to her, adding that Wu asked the police to buy houses from her company at Rundu for its members.
It is also understood that she has made generous donations to Namibia’s governing party, Swapo.
“I don’t mix business with politics. I have also never contributed to Swapo fundraising activities,” she insisted, despite evidence of her contributions to the party.
She said land reform minister Nujoma is “a very good friend of mine and that is it. He is not connected to my business nor does he have any interest in my business”. Nujoma did not respond to a query about his relationship with Wu. There was also no evidence linking Nujoma to Wu’s business deals.
Wu said claims that she is protected politically are not new.
“These comments are not new, but no, I don’t use political connections because I don’t have any. My friendship with some politicians is pure friendship and doesn’t mix with my business, and nor do I participate in politics,” she said.
She added that “my empire is not yet worth a billion dollar, although I am working towards it. Also, with greater heights in society comes greater responsibility, and critics also increase; some good and encouraging while others want to bring you down. In business, however, one needs to have a chest for these, because it is not a bed of roses.”
Wu said she contributed to charitable causes in Namibia including the Namibia Networks of AIDS Service Organisations, the First Ladies Trust Fund, a women’s gardening project at Okatana, Oshakati and classrooms for a kindergarten at Okaku. She said she donated a kindergarten to the Rundu Town Council.
* This article was produced by The Namibian's investigative unit. Tileni Mongudhi started this investigation in 2014. He is now the acting editor at The Southern Times.