Sapekoe Tea Estate a sad tale in prosperous Tzaneen
WE had the misfortune last week to stop for a cuppa at the Makgoba Tea Estate in the magnificent Magoebaskloof outside Tzaneen. An avid tea drinker, I thought it would be good to take a look at the controversial tea estate.
Known as the Sapekoe Tea Estate, it was established in 1964 by the Industrial Development Corporation ( IDC). Experts had chosen the site for its subtropical climate and high summer rainfall. Dams were built for the supply of extra water in times of drought and in winter.
Authorities feared that an embargo by India and Ceylon might leave South Africa without tea. On the estate, a processing plant known as the Middlekop Estate Tea Factory was built. By 1967, 1 500 hec tares were under cultivation at Sapekoe, hiring over 2 000 workers to pluck the tea, peaking at 10 000 seasonal pickers in the season of mellow fruitfulness. The IDC had invested over R200 million.
In 2000, the estate was producing 60% of the tea enjoyed by millions of South Africans; annual turnover was in excess of R160 million.
In 2004, the Makgoba family instituted a successful land claim. In 2006, the land was purchased with state money for R104 million and handed over to a family trust with initial funding of R15 million to get the project off the ground. The whole asset was reckoned to be worth R121 million. However, the trust members illegally changed the terms of reference and millions of rands were siphoned off, and the tea estate collapsed. In total, 42 farms were left destitute. Unpaid workers burnt down the teaprocessing factory and bitter infighting between community members ensued.
In 2012, a further R9 million was ploughed into the business to resurrect and prune the tea bushes, together with a further R5 million’s worth of farming equipment. Analysts reckoned that the trust could earn over R30 million per annum once the plantations were again in full production.
Alas it was not to be. In November 2013, the last 300 workers were laid off. Our visit to the Pekoe Tea Room, overlooking the tea plantations, was a depressing affair. The tea bushes were obviously unkempt and largely uncared for, and sadlooking unemployed people were everywhere to be seen. Not even the higher cost of imports due to a weak rand offers a glimmer of hope.
The tea shop itself was almost deserted; even the tea had to be imported. It used to be a major tourism attraction with busloads of visitors coming every week to enjoy the magnificent view of the Magoebaskloof and enjoy a genuine local cuppa.
Nevertheless, the visit to Tzaneen was outstanding , as clearly the town itself was wellmanaged and prosperous with, surprise, surprise, two qualified electrical engineers. Outages only occur when Eskom does its load shedding . The roads in and around Tzaneen were good. Successful citrus, avocado and macadamia nuts farms were everywhere to be seen — we were surprised to learn that South Africa is the leading producer of macadamias in the world. Visit Tzaneen, but don’t expect a nice hot cup of local tea.
Fresh orange is probably healthier anyway and avocados challenge the olive for top dog in the healthy oils industry. Macadamia butter is without equal.
‘ Our visit to the Pekoe Tea Room, overlooking the tea plantations, was a depressing affair. The tea bushes were obviously unkempt and largely uncared for.’ PHOTO0 SUPPLIED
The Pekoe Tea Room used to attract tourists who enjoyed the views and a locallygrown cup of tea, but infighting in the Makgoba family trust sees even the tea being imported.