Thulami Mtembu has worked at Magwa tea farm for 33 years. For him it’s more than a job. “It’s the smell. Every day I come here I feel so refreshed,” he says. “I love the aroma of the tea bush. The conditions here make our tea special.”
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 and put its future in doubt.
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 (4,450 acre) Magwa farm outside Lusikisiki in Eastern Cape province is blessed with an ideal climate and soil type for growing tea. At its peak five years ago it came close to profitability, producing 2.7m tonnes of tea in a season, sold in advance to countries including Britain, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The farm employed 1,200 permanent and 2,300 seasonal workers.
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, tensions 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 1,100 rand (£91) a month, below the national minimum wage of R1,376 for farm work, according to Nkosinathi Mbolo, who is arbitrating between management and employees.
Sweating in the afternoon sun, Vukile Jikwayo, 51, a mechanic clad in blue overalls, said he earned R1,250 a month: “It is not enough. That is why we are still fighting. 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 over changes to their terms of conditions which they said were made without consultation. 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 (Fawu).
Then, despite tight finances, Magwa’s management gave pay rises of 100% to some workers but not others, the union claims. “This led to conflict among the workers: management was selective in terms of compensation,” said Mbalisi Tonga, Fawu’s provincial secretary in 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, workers’ lunch breaks were extended from 30 minutes to an hour – but with a deduction of six rand. “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 in 2011. What happened during the latter is bitterly disputed. Tonga claims picketing workers were beaten and arrested by police. Magwa’s management accused the workers of a violent rampage in which shots were fired, buildings gutted and a security guard killed.
Estate manager Mtembu 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. They bashed and burned managers’ cars. Offices were torched and quite a lot of rebuilding had to be done.
“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. We’ve had strikes before but nothing as violent as this one. It was workers versus management. Some of the workers themselves were beaten because they got caught off guard.”
King Masangwana, a factory manager, said: “It was so violent you can’t stand it. You had to run for your life.”
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 [machete-like tools], but he made it out [alive]. One of the security guards, though, was shot dead. It was terrible. That day, I started becoming an old man.”
The union denies the charges. Tonga said: “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.”
Asked about the death, he replied: “I have heard about it and some members were taken to court, but it could not be sustained and they were acquitted.” The management used the strikes as a convenient excuse to flee, Tonga added. “You can’t, when you have a strike, go away. This escalates the strike. We sympathise with the taxpayers. As the management, you are supposed to take the responsibility and face it. That’s what they have been failing to do.
“What happens at Magwa is that if there’s a strike, it’s a holiday for management. They got paid for sitting at home. We try talking to them but they are not available.”
The general manager, Ian Crawford, left the estate last September. Attempts by the Guardian to contact him failed. Last month, speaking to South Africa’s 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 is owed.
“Until the politics around Magwa is resolved and discipline is restored in the workplace, it will never recover,” he added. “I don’t believe it will ever get up and running again. 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 of the department of rural development and agrarian reform, 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 who were not satisfied with the way he was managing Magwa.”
Other managers who had left the farm in February 2011 returned in November, too late to save that year’s harvest. In some months workers went unpaid.
Mtembu said: “When we came back, pruning was a waste of time. A whole season was lost: maybe about R30m. Everything we are doing now is getting ready for next season. We talk to the workers – but we make sure we don’t talk about the past.”
An uneasy truce has been reached, with managers and workers in dialogue, though some managers remain offsite. 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. The last date written on a chalkboard at the entrance is 04-02-11. Inside the giant sheds, rows of conveyor belts are standing still and tea-cutting equipment gathers dust. Power generators are lifeless, while vast coal boilers for steaming tea are empty. “This would normally be operating at full steam,” said Mbolo. “But there is a shortage of coal and parts.”
So the paralysis continues. Mtembu said: “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 R20m to assist with the planting but sometimes politicians make promises and don’t cover all the costs.
“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 determined and 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. Once you get this place going, it will be so beautiful.”
That will require some 30m rand to be found – and quickly.
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. It is a priority. We don’t want the people to lose their jobs.”
Until then, Magwa is left clinging to past glories. Tonga reflected: “People say it’s the best quality tea. 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.”