Lusikisiki - The largest tea estate in the southern
hemisphere, Magwa Tea outside Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape, faces ruin after
being looted and abandoned by its workers earlier this year.
The 1 803 hectare farm had a turnover of R65m a season and
provided jobs and career training for 1 200 permanent and 2 300 seasonal workers.
In February, the farm was shut down when workers, the highest paid in the tea
industry, went on the rampage after management refused their demand for a 104%
By May, tea plants usually kept pruned to waist height, for
ease of picking were shoulder high and useless.
The plants stretch as far as the eye can see on both sides
of the dirt road that winds across the hills from Lusikisiki to Mbotjie on the
Wild Coast, in Transkei.
"The crop for the year has been lost," says Pierre
Leppan, a director at the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) which has
managed the farm for the past seven years.
"The names of six managers are on a hitlist and the
ECDC is unable to guarantee their safety. They are having to run the farm on
The farm had started thriving in recent years, after decades
of plundering, corruption and mismanagement.
A Magwa manager, who declined to be named for fear of his
job and his safety, says the trouble started last year, soon after a Farm
Workers' Union (Fawu) official was redeployed to Cape Town and replaced by two
others. The original union official had understood Magwa, its history, and what
was and was not viable, but his successors had not.
"The workers and the management had a harmonious
relationship until then," the manager says.
"The two new officials were confrontational from the
start. They misunderstood how Magwa worked. They thought, for example, that the
management were the owners of the farm."
The manager said the officials postponed a Magwa workers'
council election to allow seasonal workers to "boot out" most of the
Last year, the new council demanded a 104% wage increase,
even though Fawu had negotiated a 7% nationwide increase for agricultural
Magwa management told the council it was not authorised to
approve the increase, but that the decision was up to the ECDC board and the
department of agriculture.
Incensed, the workers cornered managers in their office and
assaulted them. A violent strike, which was later declared illegal, went on for
"Throughout the strike, the managers had shots fired at
them," the manager says. "Vehicles were stolen and vandalised. Houses
were looted and burned."
The strike ended when the department of agriculture offered
the Magwa employees a financial package to return to work. Production was soon
back on line, but the mood at Magwa remained tense.
"Workers were not following management's instructions,
which led to the suspension of programmes around the farm," says the
Magwa security manager Daan Schoeman recalls the tension
when he returned to work in July. "When I went back in July, I could feel
that something wasn't lekker (right)," he says.
In March, workers went on the rampage again. "They
destroyed everything in sight. They stole what they could. Fridges, freezers,
ovens and vehicles - everything," says Schoeman.
The police were called and rubber bullets and tear-gas were
fired. He received a desperate call for help from a manager.
"He said 'Help Daan, they're killing me', but I
couldn't do anything. It was impossible to get in. They chopped him up with
pangas, but he made it out (alive). One of the security guards, though, was
"It was terrible; that day, I started becoming an old
man," he says.
Permanent workers, who lived in houses on the 13 settlements
on the farm and refused to take part in the strike, were chased off their
Police spokesperson Captain Mduduzi Godlwana confirmed that one
person was arrested for murdering the security guard and another 48 for public
violence. They are to appear in court soon, he says.
Fawu official Tonga Mbaliese blames the management for the
He says the initial dispute was about the imposition of a
253kg a day tea plucking quota, up from between 180kg and 200kg.
"The target was set unilaterally without employees
agreeing with it. The workers are not the cause of the problems on Magwa. The
problems are caused by the style of management," Mbaliese says.
"There is no transparency at Magwa. Management can't
cry foul and blame everyone when they are the ones who are not working."
Surrounding communities, politicians and tribal leaders have
all laid claim to the land in past decades.
The plantation is in the Pondoland magisterial district of
Lusikisiki, which falls under the Qawukeni Tribal Authority.
In the 19th century, the land was used to graze cattle,
according to University of the Western Cape land and agrarian studies programme
lecturer Thembela Kepe.
In a study titled "Magwa Tea Venture in South Africa:
Politics, Land and Economics", he writes that cattle was herded to the
coastal grasslands during the winter months, when upland grazing was limited.
In the 1960s, Johan Mills, the then secretary to the Chief
Minister of Transkei, suggested to Paramount Chief Botha Sigcawu that Pondoland
needed a commercial venture to provide a local alternative to migrant labour to
the sugar cane fields of Natal.
"When people rejected the notion of tea being good for
the Mpondos, Sigcawu is said to have intimidated the residents, claiming that
the land belonged to his father anyway and implying he could force them to
move," Kepe writes.
The residents retaliated by burning down Sigcawu's
supporters' houses. Several deaths were reported, including that of Sigcawu's
brother, Chief Vukuyibambe Sigcawu.
Even after the plantation was established, it was beset by
problems. Its assets were regularly plundered through corruption that continued
into the 1990s.
Another problem was a demand by Fawu that workers receive
higher wages at agricultural schemes.
It was thought that state-run enterprises should set a good
example in labour practices. As a result, Magwa workers became some of the
highest paid tea estate workers in southern Africa.
The high wages and poor profitability plunged the farm into
financial trouble. A plan to lay off workers sparked violence in mid-2003 when
15 offices and a boardroom were burnt down.
In 2004, the ECDC, which was brought in as a custodian of
the land, appointed a team of specialist tea farm managers to make the farm
It seemed an impossible task.
Magwa was producing just 1.2 million kilogrammes of
"made" tea a season. Exports were at a minimum and the cost of
production was "extremely high" at R25 a kilogramme.
However, by 2007, Magwa was achieving its highest-ever
production figures, with 2.7 million tonnes of "made" tea a season.
"The department of agriculture would give us R15m a
year, and we were giving them R65m back," says the senior employee.
"The tea was sold in advance on contract, making in
roads into huge markets such as China, Pakistan and the (United Kingdom)."
This success was despite the infrequent and late arrival of
government funds and a monthly wage bill of R3.5m.
Before operations at Magwa shut down, workers were earning
five times more than those in Malawi, the farm's general manager says.
They were also earning bonuses and being taken out of the
fields and mentored.
"We were taking from the bottom and building up skills
so that they could take over the running of the farm one day," says the
"Tea industry skills are in enormous demand around the
world, so many of the Magwa workers were poached, but this was fine. We would
train more. We became something of a university for the tea industry."
Now Magwa's future remains uncertain.
Eastern Cape Rural Development spokesperson Ayabulela Ngoqo
says a new Magwa board will be appointed on June 30, and will be tasked with
finding a solution to the problems.
"The board will be given the prerogative to deal with
all administrative matters affecting operations," he says.
"We won't have a harvest this year, but our main aim is
to get it up and running again."