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.