A beacon of hope for land reform

What began as a weekend hobby for tycoon Sydney Press, the founder of multi-billion rand retail giant Edcon, became a legendary agricultural property called Coromandel Estate, nestled at the base of the Spitskop Mountain between Lydenburg and Dullstroom in Mpumalanga.

Press purchased his first piece of land in the region in 1968, but over the years he slowly pieced together surrounding properties to make up the nearly 6 000-hectare farm it is today. He seemed to spare no expense and made full use of the substantial land and its abundant water supply.

With high summer rainfall and plentiful boreholes, but a harsh mountain climate with frosty winters, the region lent itself to an abundance of opportunities. Wool farming, potatoes, maize (for sale and to process to supplement cattle feed), wheat, sugar beans, soya and sunflowers covered a large portion of the farm. Also in abundance were export quality blueberries, large orchards of nectarines and peaches, as well as a high-tech dairy farm which was established to the south of the property, with a considerable herd of Holstein Friesland cattle.

The workshop complex had an impressive stone barn, said to be built by Italian prisoners of war, large fertilizer stores and even a butchery. Opposite the workshop area, a large fruit packhouse included three cold rooms and a freezer. Press also brought in game, including impala and blesbuck, to roam the higher ground. In addition, the farm housed 70 Thoroughbred I’ve made it a cap because it’s a breed name, like Friesland horses in architect-designed stables with slate roofs, grand yellowwood doors and stone walls reminiscent of the English countryside — a fitting home for the famous race horse Northfield, reportedly the most expensive horse in the world at the time.

Press commissioned Italian architect Marco Zanuso to design both the stables and the ambitious Manor House, which was built on the northern slopes of the estate overlooking the valley towards Lydenburg. Dams teeming with trout, horse riding excursions and three impressive waterfalls made Coromandel an attractive playground for the wealthy, but philanthropic Press also saw to it that his employees were well looked after. In its heyday, Coromandel Estate had 300 staff in its employ, all of whom were entitled to numerous benefits at the cost of the farm.

During Press’s ownership of the property, all staff and their children were engaged in some kind of education, whether it was an adult education programme or the on-site primary school. The school, built and maintained by Press and the farm administrators with the teachers on the farm payroll, ensured all the local children at least had a basic education. Press also acquired a school bus to ensure all of his employees’ older children were safely transported to the nearby high school in Lydenburg.

Current employees remember a time when, if a child was seen gallivanting around the property during the morning, individual employees took it upon themselves to ensure the child was returned to the classroom; great emphasis was placed on education. Adults were supported with adult basic education classes and today everyone who lives and works at Coromandel can read and write.

The children were encouraged to go on excursions with the school bus, to learn about the region and its geography, while neighbouring schools were permitted to visit the farm on geographic, historical and agricultural excursions to learn about dairy farming, or to visit the blueberry, nectarine and peach orchards. Doctors and nurses were regularly brought onsite with a mobile clinic, hence healthcare was largely provided free of charge. The 140 houses in the nearby staff village, all built by Press, were sup- plied with free electricity, clean running water and household geysers.

In addition, Press had constructed 25 homes for the exclusive use of his management staff. These were scattered around the farm and included a double-storey thatch mansion for the farm manager. Monthly food parcels were distributed via a comprehensive feeding scheme, and thanks to the region’s bitterly cold winters, even coal and firewood for every household stove were delivered regularly by tractor.

Press resigned as chairman of Edcon after 47 years in 1982 and passed away in May 1997. His dream property fell to the responsibility of a trust. With Press’ heirs seemingly all living overseas, the farm began to falter as a commercial enterprise. The staff were left wondering what would become of their home, and it would take another four years before Coromandel Estate would find its new path.

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement


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