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Thulami Mtembu has worked at the Magwa Tea Estate for 33 years. It is more than a job for him.
“It’s the smell.
The fragrant lime-green bushes stretch away to the horizon at the biggest tea plantation in the southern hemisphere. It is a deceptively tranquil scene. Magwa has been racked by strikes, violence and financial strife that have brought production to a standstill.
The crisis encapsulates South Africa’s struggle to realise the potential of its wealth of natural resources. It is a story of low or unpaid wages, powerful unions, political inertia and allegations of financial mismanagement. It is a stark example of self-destruction.
The 1 800-hectare Magwa farm outside Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape is blessed with an ideal climate and soil type for tea. At its peak five years ago it came close to profitability, producing 2.7-million tonnes of tea in a season. The farm employed 1 200 permanent and 2 300 seasonal workers.
Market decline led to the problems
But when the market shrank and the tea price declined, the problems began. The provincial economic development corporation stepped in and, despite emergency subsidies from the state, tension over wages erupted. The farm claimed its workers were the best paid in the industry, earning five times more than their counterparts in Malawi. But even today some still earn R1 100 a month, below the national minimum wage of R1 376 for farm work, according to Nkosinathi Mbolo, who is arbitrating between the management and employees.
Sweating in the afternoon sun, Vukile Jikwayo (51), a mechanic, said he earned R1 250 a month: “The money is too little—I have to buy food and educate five children. All we want is a better income.”
From 2009 the workers rebelled against changes to their terms of employment. Labourers who pluck tea leaves and throw them over their shoulder into a backpack were told to increase their haul from 200kg to 253kg a day on the same pay, according to the Food and Allied Workers’ Union.
Preferential treatment of workers
Then Magwa’s management gave pay rises of 100% to some workers but not to others, the union claims. “This led to conflict among the workers. Management was selective in terms of compensation,” said Mbalisi Tonga, the union’s provincial secretary in the Eastern Cape. “The manager said he would reward, in his words, ‘deserving cases’.”
Tonga said there was further resentment when, to comply with the law, lunch breaks were extended from 30 minutes to an hour—but with a deduction of R6. “At that point, they unified the workers. The workers said we must fight and the strike started.”
There was a strike in 2010 and again last year. What happened during the latter is bitterly disputed. Tonga claims picketing workers were beaten and arrested by police. Management accused the workers of a violent rampage in which shots were fired, buildings gutted and a security guard killed.
Mtembu, the estate manager, said: “The place was ruined. They burned all the houses, destroyed protective clothing and removed everything—furniture, ceilings, floors, windows.
It was a looting spree. The management ran away and it was a free-for-all. A security guard was killed and supervisors were severely beaten. Any manager present that day would have been killed too. It was workers versus management. Some of the workers themselves were beaten because they got caught off guard.”
Magwa security manager Daan Schoeman was quoted by South African media last year as saying a manager called him with a desperate plea for help. “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 shot dead. That day I started becoming an old man.”
The union denies the charges. “From the information we got, there was no violence. We trust our sources because there were court cases. Complainants ... have not been able to sustain their claims in court,” Tonga said. Asked about the death, he replied: “I have heard about it and some members were taken to court, but ... they were acquitted.” The management used the strikes as a convenient excuse to flee, Tonga said. “As the management, you are supposed to take the responsibility and face it. What happens at Magwa is that if there’s a strike, it’s a holiday for management.”
The general manager, Ian Crawford, left the estate in September last year. Attempts by the Guardian to contact him failed. Last month, speaking to the Financial Mail, he described Magwa as “a murky, messy scenario with politicians and other people ducking and diving” and said he was taking it to court for money he was owed. “Until the politics around Magwa is resolved and discipline is restored in the workplace, it will never recover,” he said. “It’s game over for a project that had huge potential to uplift poor people.”
Crawford has been criticised by workers and the government alike. Ayabulela Ngoqo, spokesperson of the provincial department of rural development, said: “Mr Crawford was running Magwa like his own house. He was a man who could stop on the side of the road and sign a cheque. There was a revolt from the workers.”
Other managers who had left the farm in February last year returned in November, too late to save the year’s harvest. In some months workers went unpaid. “A whole season was lost, maybe about R30-million. Everything we are doing now is getting ready for next season. We talk to the workers but we don’t talk about the past,” Mtembu said.
An uneasy truce has been reached, with managers and workers in dialogue, though some managers remain off site. But a shortage of funds to invest in tractors, trailers, coal and diesel means that employees have been reduced to “piece work” of six hours instead of the standard nine. The fields are being maintained in readiness, but there is no guarantee of a harvest in September.
Machinery is lying idle. Inside giant sheds, rows of conveyor belts are standing still and tea-cutting equipment gathers dust. “This would normally be operating at full steam,” said Mbolo. “But there is a shortage of coal and parts.”
So the paralysis continues. “As far as production is concerned, there is nothing happening. We don’t have funds to buy coal or diesel. We have made requests to the government. It did promise R20-million to assist with the planting, but sometimes politicians make promises and don’t cover all the costs,” Mtembu said.
“There is no pay rise. We cannot predict another strike. If the workers want to do those things, they’ll simply do them. If they want to resort to violence, they’ll resort to violence. It depends on the quality of the union leadership.”
But Mtembu is optimistic that South Africa’s last tea plantation can be saved. “I would not have come back if I did not feel the company has potential. There’s no point sitting at home with so much knowledge; let me assist. The company was once a star and can be a star again.”
Ngoqo said the government was still working on a rescue package. “The department is trying to source funding so the farm can be running smoothly and undertaking harvesting. We don’t want the people to lose their jobs.”
Until then Magwa is left clinging to past glories. Tonga reflected: “Twenty years ago they got a trophy from France for the best tea in the world. That trophy is not there now. I don’t know if it got lost or burned down with the office.”—
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