'I went to bed a hero and woke up a villain'
On his final Building Blitz project in South Africa, the businessman and philanthropist Niall Mellon talks Nama, Enda and Ireland’s ‘witch-hunt’ of developers
When Niall Mellon is talking seriously his driving tends to suffer. So the drive through Khayelitsha is a quick-slow lurch. This sprawling apartheid-era township on the edge of Cape Town ranks among the top murder locations in South Africa and sees about six vigilante mob killings a month. The place is out of control, according to a high-level report on policing that hit the media this week.
Still, we lurch along.
The 2,000 white Irish volunteers who marched breezily on to the site of a Niall Mellon Building Blitz here four years ago could hardly have guessed at the huge security operation around them. “Niall Mellon could nearly invade Iraq with the level of security he employs for these,” says a project veteran.
Mellon isn’t keen to discuss it, but he carries a lethal-looking curved knife and is acquainted with the law. “In South Africa, if you stab someone above the waist it’s attempted murder,” he says, suddenly stopping the jeep outside a large secondary school.
It’s lunchtime and four 17-year-old schoolgirls are hanging around the gate. He calls them over and chats easily and unpatronisingly to them, asking about their ambitions, whether they live in a house or a shack, if they know anyone who’s been killed, and if they worry about rape. These are serious girls. Yes, a man was killed only a couple of days ago, they say. Yes, they worry about rape. “It has happened to friends,” says one girl carefully.
Two of them live in shacks, where fire, wind and rain are constant threats, where no electricity and the noise from the shebeens make it hard to study. But each of them knows exactly where she is headed: Sineso Pho to be a financial accountant; Sisi Pho to be a psychologist. The two who live in shacks, Cikizwa and Aphiwe, say earnestly that they want to be a chartered accountant and a lawyer. It’s a thrum of hope in a hopeless place.
Young as they are, they remember the Irish visit four years ago. “We remember them because when they see you, they greet you, and if they have food or something like that, they share it with you,” one says in careful English. Is that unusual? “That does not happen here.”
Back on the motorway we miss a turn, and suddenly we’re heading on to the glorious golden mile of Camp’s Bay, where Atlantic waves pound the stunning shoreline and a cooling breeze fans the affluent residents basking in another perfect South African summer. The contrast is head-spinning.
In a way we’ve just encompassed Niall Mellon’s early South African journey, from the site of his biggest volunteer building project to the place where he and his wife, Nicola, bought their first South African home. And because he isn’t burdened with false modesty he adds that they sold that lovely ocean-front villa in 2006 for €1.3 million, spent about €300,000 of it on a “very nice two-bed apartment” in Cape Town’s business district and used the rest to build 150 houses for shack-dwellers in Netreg, on the airport road.
“Every time I leave Cape Town, which is almost every week, I have a little look to the left and I think of all the good we did when I see those homes.” Does Nicola see it like that? “I married a beautiful woman who has no desire to have money. Which is just as well given what happened,” he says.
“What happened” was the collapse of the Irish banks in 2008. One day he was a developer worth more than €150 million; the next he had nothing. “The night the banks collapsed I went to bed a hero and woke up a villain. That’s what the Irish State did.”
Two years after what he passionately describes as a “witch-hunt” against developers, he surrendered his Mount Merrion home on five acres to Nama. “And – what people couldn’t understand – I also handed over another dozen properties I owned, unencumbered, with no bank debt whatsoever, any of which would have paid my mortgage for several years.” When he moved out of his Dublin home with Nicola, their three children and a fourth who was on the way, he had just €1 in his pocket, he says.
Nama seems a world away from Camp’s Bay and the nice Italian restaurant where the cheerful black African staff recognise him and his never-changing pasta order. But his anger is well-honed, and his proposals are an interesting mix of developer’s defensiveness and the activist’s righteous tradition of protest.
“Irish people need to remember there was no property crash in Ireland; there was a bank collapse that caused a property crash. Two different things. Fianna Fáil were desperate to blame anyone except themselves and heaped pain on developers. It was an absolutely disgraceful effort by the then government, and it hasn’t been much better under this one. But this year Frank Daly, the current chairman of Nama, came out and said it was the banks, not the developers. So developers need to be fairly judged now. Everyone is forgetting developers only built to satisfy demand.”