Uncertain future for KZN sugar cane farmers after Tongaat Hulett goes into business rescue

File Picture: Farm workers harvesting sugar cane in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: Bongani Mbatha African News Agency (ANA)

File Picture: Farm workers harvesting sugar cane in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: Bongani Mbatha African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 1, 2022


Durban - A North Coast sugar cane farmer, who also has a livestock business, says she will have to sell her livestock in order to pay her workers’ monthly wages for the next few months.

This comes after sugar producer Tongaat Hulett was placed in business rescue last week.

Lee Hlubi, who owns a farming operation at Nkwalini in the King Cetshwayo District Municipality which specialises in sugar cane and livestock, said she had been taken by surprise by the Tongaat Hulett announcement.

“It was only after receiving a direct message informing me that I would not be paid for the sugar cane that had been sold to the mill in September that the reality set in,” she told The Mercury yesterday.

Hlubi said she was worried about how Tongaat’s business rescue would affect her operations, as sugar cane farming was her main source of income.

“The problem is that we have crops that have been (grown) by people that need to be paid. The fact that Tongaat is in this position may be understood by some workers, but there will be those who may hold a different view. So that is the predicament one faces. However, my workforce is very loyal,” she said.

She added that her operation was just starting to recover from the devastation due to last year’s riots when part of her farm was torched, and the floods hit in April this year.

“One is driven by hope and prayer at this point because it is difficult to see a way out of this. The costs just continue to climb,” she added.

Rodney Mbuyazi, a farmer from Empangeni, said last week’s news had caught farmers off guard as they had been hoping that the problems reported about the company a few years ago had been resolved.

He told of the tough choice he had to make in order to ensure that his operation stayed afloat.

“Many of us will now have to approach banks and raise loans, which is often difficult for emerging farmers who do not have a record to trade on with financial institutions. It is either that or negotiating with workers and hope that they understand the situation,” he said.

Mbuyazi, whose farm in Heatonville was also destroyed during the riots, said he would have to sell some of his livestock, including cattle and pigs.

He admitted the coming months would be very difficult, adding farmers were hoping for assistance from the government.

Another sugar cane farmer, from Jozini in northern KZN, said while she had not been directly affected, many of her colleagues and friends were facing difficulties.

Thoko Mavuso, who has been in the business for 18 years, said: “It is quite tough for many because of what we have been through, from drought, the looting to the floods, and now this. Many of my colleagues are really desperate.”

According to the South African Canegrowers Association, last week’s development is likely to have a devastating impact on the livelihoods of many in the sugar cane farming sector.

A statement from Tongaat Hulett’s Business Rescue Practitioners said last week’s development was being handled delicately, with consideration being given to the livelihoods of many in the sugar cane value chain.

SA Canegrowers reiterated that it would follow all the relevant steps to engage with the business rescue process in order to ensure that payments due to growers were prioritised, but stressed that urgent action was required to prevent the catastrophic social consequences that would arise if the immediate threat of non-payment materialises over the next few days.