FUNDS DRY UP FOR TEA ESTATES: DAILY DISPATCH

TWO major tea plantations in the Eastern Cape struggle to make headway because of management and financial problems.

At Majola, near Port St Johns, about 1 000 workers stand to lose their jobs as Bhisho has yet to transfer R5-million promised to the estate last year, the Democratic Alliance has claimed.

While at Magwa, near Lusikisiki, a R42m development grant, promised in June by the government as part of a turnaround plan, has yet to materialise.

The interim board of Magwa Tea Estate is due to meet today to consider “alternative proposals” for this estate. Chairman of the interim board Leon Coetzee is then due to meet Premier Noxolo Kiviet and MEC for agriculture Zoleka Capa at Magwa tomorrow.

Over the past few weeks more than 300 workers, including 240 casuals, have been hard at work harvesting tea at Majola, an exercise expected to last well into next year.

The tea estate’s manager, Ernest Keswa, said they harvest between 13 and 17 tons of tea a day.

The DA’S Veliswa Mvenya said Bhisho should have transferred R5m in January to help the estate and failure to effect this transfer had scuppered the estate’s moves to buy fertilizer, resulting in major losses of production and a poor quality of tea.

Income projections had also been affected.

Keswa confirmed that Bhisho’s department of agriculture and rural development had promised R5m towards the tea estate last year.

“We have not received it because there are financial statements that have yet to be submitted,” Keswa said.

He said there was an arrangement that the funding would be transferred to Majola Tea Estate through the Eastern Cape Rural Finance Corporation.

“When we want something we make a requisition and then Uvimba Finance buys for us.

“Until now we have had no access to the money. We are currently in negotiations with the department.”

Ayabulela Ngoqo, rural development and agrarian reform department spokesman, said: “It [Majola Tea Estate] was unable to produce audited financial statements.” He said these audited statements were required to meet Treasury regulations.

During a visit to the estate this week, the Daily Dispatch found workers harvesting in the tea fields and tea being produced in the factory. Already, 240 bags of black tea had been produced.

The estate has 116 permanent staff and 240 casuals.

According to Keswa, they should have at least 600 workers in order to function to their optimal capacity.

“We are working, though we don’t work to our full capacity.

“The costs of production outweigh the money we get per kilogram of tea we sell at present.

“The money we get per kilogram is low because we sell the Majola tea as a commodity.

“Its price is dependent on world markets. If prices drop we are affected because we can’t set our own price,” he said.

Magwa Tea Estate’s Coetzee said the estate had received funding from the agriculture department but it was “not sufficient at this stage”.

He said the estate was still lacking funding from a number of sources, “including its own revenue”.

He said Magwa was “stable at this stage”, although he conceded that no management representatives were present on the estate because they had claimed there were “labour issues”.

“It’s operating but it’s not operating normally as it’s operating without management.”

Senior workers on the estate managed the other workers in the fields, and they were currently pruning.

MEC for agriculture told the Dispatch last month that Magwa Tea Estate was “up and running” at a time when a visit to the plantation revealed there were no managers or workers on site.

Coetzee conceded that the situation was “unusual”.

Mbalisi Tonga, Food and Allied Workers’ Union provincial secretary, said the province’s tea estates battled financially because of a lack of a consistent flow of cash from government and lack of accountability by managers for the money.

“There is no consistent injection of funds. Some other contributory factors include the fact that the necessary documentation for accounting purposes is not submitted on time,” he said, adding that the tea estates should not be used as a political footballs.

In 2009, a portfolio committee on agriculture and rural development recommended that the department consider the production of other suitable crops at these estates, as tea production was not viable in the country due to existing trade agreements in SADC.