Liquidation looms large for Zebediela Citrus

The largest orange producer in the southern hemisphere, the Zebediela Citrus Estate in Limpopo, is teetering on the brink of collapse, leaving workers and beneficiaries high and dry.

Since 2016, the once-thriving citrus producer has been blighted by financial woes and is now on the verge of liquidation by August. The company was placed under business rescue after it failed to settle a debt of more than R170-million.

Due to a decline in production, the farming project has stopped exporting to overseas markets.

Situated 0n the outskirts of the rural village of Zebediela, south of Polokwane, the estate was transferred to a community-owned enterprise after the land was restored back to 21 communities through the government’s land restitution programme in 2003.

It has since been under the ownership of Bjatladi Communal Property Association (BCPA) on behalf of the claimant communities.

Junior shareholding partners, Humansdorp Corporative and majority stakeholders BCPA appear to have agreed on voluntary liquidation of the citrus estate, in order to fast-track the possible sale of assets after the appointment of a liquidator.

For the umpteenth time, this agricultural corporate spanning 3 000 hectares of planted citrus has been on the precipice due to a lack of investment, failed joint ventures and allegations of financial malfeasance, which resulted in unpaid electricity bills, late payment of workers and a drastic cut in labour and production.

These allegations triggered a standoff between BCPA and concerned beneficiaries under the auspices of the Save Zebediela Citrus Estate Committee. At some stage, the committee accused BCPA of failing to submit financial statements and siphoning off funds after the now-suspended lawyer Tumi Mokwena took over the running of the estate in 2016.

The committee demanded a forensic audit and an investigation into how Mokwena came to run the estate. Mokwena took over after strategic partner, John Charles Boyce was kicked out of the estate.

In terms of the settlement agreement, Boyce paid R10-million into Mokwena’s trust account, but the money was never accounted for.

The matter formed part of a successful application by the Legal Practice Council for the suspension of Mokwena as a practising attorney.

In a letter dated April 12, addressed to Humansdorp, BCPA chairman Frans Tlolane confirmed the estate’s insolvency, ordering the occupants to vacate the property.

“We confirm that Zebediela Fruits has abandoned business and operations at the farms. As a result, Zebediela Fruits is no longer an operating company in the property of the BCPA.

“We request you leave the property belonging to BCPA within five days from the date of this letter to allow the BCPA to utilise the farm as per its constitution. In the event you do not heed the request as aforesaid, the BCPA reserves the right to approach the court on an urgent basis to obtain an eviction order to avoid financial inconveniences,” the letter reads.

The estate’s challenges are exacerbated by a low yield from old trees, aging infrastructure and irrigation systems.

 Most of the orchards on the farm are older than 30 years, while the pack house dates back 50 years and uses a rope-and-roller sorting system with manual classification.

Edwin Mabowa, the provincial chairman of the Food and Allied Workers Union, said they had been engaged in negotiations in an attempt to rescue workers from possible retrenchment. He said: “In light of the looming liquidation, the future of the employees hangs in the balance. There is a great possibility that people will lose their jobs in the event of an absent rescue measure.”

Save Zebediela Citrus Estate committee chairman Ike Kekana said that given the severity of the debts the company found itself in, it is clear that the company will not return to its former glory as a citrus hub with the moniker of Zebediela dinamuneng.

“This liquidation is the final nail in the coffin. To us as beneficiaries and members of the BCPA, this is the end of the road. However, we are committed to fight to the bitter end until justice is done for the beneficiaries.”

The head of the provincial department of agriculture and land reform, Jacqueline Maisela, said: “We have been trying to facilitate harmony between BCPA and the workers as well as the conflict between BCPA and the Save Zebediela Citrus Estate concerned group.

“The department estimates R465-million will be needed to redevelop the estate.”

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