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.

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