Firm in legal battle with the KwaZulu-Natal Growth Fund burns down

One of the building engineers assessing the damage caused by the fire at the dairy firm in Howick. Photo by Boitumelo Pakkies/ ANA

One of the building engineers assessing the damage caused by the fire at the dairy firm in Howick. Photo by Boitumelo Pakkies/ ANA

Published Jan 13, 2023


Durban — The police in KwaZulu-Natal are investigating a case of malicious damage to property following the burning down of a dairy product company whose owner is in a bitter legal battle with the KwaZulu-Natal Growth Fund.

The mysterious fire that destroyed the building, including its equipment, in Howick outside Pietermaritzburg was spotted by security guards who alerted the management and police.

The building housed the Far End Dairy and GoodLife dairy company.

GoodLife dairy company is owned by a black woman entrepreneur, Busi Gumede.

Gumede’s company is embroiled in a protracted legal battle with KwaZulu-Natal Growth Fund Trust over the board’s cancellation of R72 million infunding it had already approved in 2020.

When the Daily News team visited the gutted factory on Thursday, a team of forensic specialists from Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) and Joburg was combing the scene to ascertain the cause of the fire.

The team included engineers who were assessing the damage to the structure.

One of the engineers who refused to be named said he believed the whole factory structure would have been damaged because the steel beams were twisted and melted. The forensic team would not be drawn to speculate on the cause of the fire until its investigation was completed, and referred all queries to management.

Speaking on behalf of factory management, Peter Cook said the damage was estimated at between R50m and R60m.

Gumede said although the place where the fire started raised more questions than answers, she would not want to speculate and would rather wait for a full forensic report.

Forensic team assessing the damage caused by fire at the dairy factory in Howick. Photo by Boitumelo Pakkies/ ANA

Jimmy Koutsouris, who is the production manager for both companies, said although he would also not want to speculate it was strange that the fire started where there were offices instead of inside the plant where there were many electrical wires. He said it would probably take six months to a year to resume operations.

“We will hear from the forensic team – for now, we cannot say whether it was an arson attack or electrical fault, but we are worried about the staff and our customers. We do not know whether by the time we come back we will still have customers to supply,” said Koutsouris.

Provincial police spokesperson Constable Thenjiswa Ngcobo said Howick SAPS had opened a case of malicious damage to property for investigation.

The incident happened a few days after the GoodLife company director had written to premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube asking her to intervene in her battle with the Fund’s board, in which she accused the provincial government of allowing the board to abuse taxpayers’ money on a frivolous case.

In a letter Gumede wrote to Dube-Ncube which the Daily News has seen, she said she strongly believed the fund was holding her company to ransom while they used taxpayers’ money to prolong a case.

Gumede said it was clear the fund would lose, but because the board members were not paying out their own pockets, they did not care.

On Thursday, Gumede said she had not received the response or at least acknowledgement of the letter from the premier or her office. On Wednesday the premier’s spokesperson Lennox Mabaso asked to be sent a letter and promised to come back to the paper, but had not done so by publication time.

Gumede said her company never intended to take the matter to court but was left with no other option after exhausting all available avenues to avoid court because the government had failed to assist her company.

She added that her claim of sabotage was evident by the fact that after Durban High Court Judge Elijah Nkosi indicated that he intended to rule in favour of her company, the board turned down her request for an out-of-court settlement, which they did not even respond to.

Gumede further stated that what is currently happening was proof of what the board warned her about, that she would not be able to take them on head-on as she would not have the financial muscle.

While the premier has yet to respond to the matter, Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs spokesperson Malusi Mchunu said it would be difficult for MEC Siboniso Duma to intervene even if he wanted to because he would be accused of interfering in the work of the board. This was contrary to the MEC's earlier response when he told the paper that he would get to the bottom of the issue, saying he was allowing internal processes to take place.

In his response in August last year, the MEC said: “We kindly request you to bear with us. We are, however, treating this matter with the utmost care and urgency.”

Daily News