As the tea grows cold

‘It’s a sad, sad story”, said the waiter from Pekoe View, a restaurant and curio shop overlooking Sapekoe Tea Estates, South Africa’s largest tea producer, which closed in December last year. He pointed to the slopes below where hundreds of acres of tea bushes have been left to grow wild and woolly. “We used to get three or four busloads of visitors a week, now we get only a few people a month.”

It’s a sad story indeed.
From the R71 between Tzaneen and Magoebaskloof, the same scenic dust road still winds up through the tea estates to the restaurant, where the views, estate tours and the chance to “drink a cup from source” used to be a major tourism attraction. Happy families would once sit cheerfully on this terrace, oohing and aahing at the scenery and snapping photographs of the glorious green fields beyond, dotted with workers dressed in yellow rain macs. Now the restaurant is empty, bar a forlorn wooden sculpture of a worker in a yellow rain mac sporting a sign that says: Do Not Touch, Unstable.

The closure of Sapekoe has spelt much more than the end of a good cuppa for tourists, however. The estate used to employ about 10 000 workers, mostly seasonal, most of whom have lost their jobs. About 2 500 people employed by outgrowers of Sapekoe have also been affected, and despite discussions that have taken place between the Greater Tzaneen Municipality and the provincial government about ways to rescue the estate, the rusting sign on the entrance gate says it all.

Like many state-owned companies, Sapekoe had its roots in the apartheid era, where the strategic decision to begin producing tea was allegedly the result of fears of an international boycott against South Africa by tea-producing countries such as Kenya, Malawi, Sri Lanka, India and China.

Established about 40 years ago by the Industrial Development Corporation, the state-owned financier invested more than R200-million since it established Sapekoe. The government passed a law stating that all tea blenders were required to use 40% of local tea in their blends, and Sapekoe supplied a captive market. In 2001 Sapekoe was responsible for about 60% of South Africa’s tea output, and its yearly turnover exceeded R160-million.

But the tea that was once sweetened by apartheid, has grown cold. Changes in the euphemistically described “tea protection environment” and the fall of local tea prices to world open markets meant that Sapekoe had to grow its exports from 5% to 60% of production. Sapekoe’s closure in December was a result of the strengthening of the rand against the dollar, global competition and the unbundling of state assets. At the time production ceased, Sapekoe estate was being rented by British multinational Camellia. “The strong rand resulted in projected losses that could not be sustained,” Malcolm Perkins, chairperson of Camellia, told a daily business newspaper earlier this year. He said that it was “particularly disappointing” since the management of the company had been restructured to make it more globally competitive.

Sapekoe land remains state owned, but now has the added irony of being one of the farms in the area subject to the Makgoba community land claim. The Limpopo Land Claims Commission has said that the Makgoba have a prima facie valid claim, although this is disputed by some historians.

In the meantime, however, the workers’ compound is all but empty, and the machinery and equipment lie still.

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