Avatar photo

By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist

Too late to save ‘citrus jewel’ Zebediela estate

Zebediela Citrus Estate: tragic tale of land redistribution gone awry, resulting in job losses, revenue decline, and community strife.

When land redistribution goes wrong, it goes badly wrong: dilapidated or burnt down buildings, overgrown grass, plundered agricultural machinery and an unused fruit packhouse.

That is the sorry sight that greets you at the 3 000-hectare Zebediela Citrus Estate, once SA’s citrus crown jewel that used to export about three million oranges per year.

ALSO READ: The more things change…

The collapse of the estate, south of Polokwane, has meant thousands of lost jobs and millions of rands in revenue, which has affected nearby towns such as Mokopane – all because of community infighting and court cases.

It was returned to the Bjatladi community under the land reform process in 2003 to empower thousands, but is now controlled by the Bjatladi communal property association (CPA).

Almost abandoned

When The Citizen visited the estate there was no sign of employees, except two security guards who allowed our vehicle in without signing in.

With local residents roaming through the farm and cars passing by, signing a register is no longer a requirement. According to an employee not wishing to be identified, serious infighting among community leaders and squandering of funds, has been “behind the disaster”.

“Leaders are currently locked up in a meeting and you are unable to talk to them. They have been trying to get an investor to rescue the project, but are battling. This entire thing has brought misery to the community. Gone are several jobs our people had in the past,” the employee said.

Attempts by The Citizen to obtain comment from CPA director Silas Kekana were unsuccessful.

Zebediela Citrus Estate
Unmatained buildings in Zebediela Citrus Estate south of Polokwane once the largest citrus producer in the southern hemisphere, employing about 200 people, mostly from the surrounding Batladi community and exporting about three million oranges per annum at the height of its 3000-hectare production capacity. In 1998, a land claim was implemented against the previous owners of Zebediela by a communal property association (CPA) representing the community. In 2003 that process was finalised when the ownership and operations of Zebediela were transferred to the Batladi CPA. Pictured on 29 February 2024. Picture: Nigel Sibanda/ The Citizen

Commenting on the failed project, Citrus Growers Association (CGA) CEO Justin Chadwick, described the loss of jobs and revenue as “tragic”. Piet Smit, CEO of the thriving Komati Group, which has entered into a partnership with the fast-growing Moletele Corona Lime Farm in Hoedspruit, ruled out any hope of Zebediela soon coming back on stream.

Community infighting and lack of experience

“Community infighting led to most of the problems. The operational partners were not allowed to do their job, because the community interfered too much.

“I also think the commercial partners did not have the right citrus production skills and experience,” Smit said.

“It will take a huge effort from the community, the department of agriculture and land reform, commercial banks and commercial farmers, to resurrect the project. I do not think it can be turned around. It will have to be restarted and re-established.”

Independent political analyst Sandile Swana said: “For the past 30 years of ANC rule, land reform and restitution have failed.

“Issues relating to residential, industrial and mining and agricultural land have been mishandled. Due to people having for years been dispossessed of their land, they have lost farming and agricultural expertise.

ALSO EAD: Land reform: Three decades squandered

“You need skills to become a farmer and land owner – meaning you should be prepared, having gone through agricultural college,” he said. “Having been a farm labourer does not translate into becoming a good farmer.*”

“Land may be restored to the people, but lack of farming and agricultural knowledge – as seen in the case of Zebediela – can only lead to failure.”

The story of the estate has been a litany of failures. In August last year, the packhouse was burned to the ground – the latest in a number of arson incidents over the years.

The estate is also R170 million in debt. A Covid recovery pledge of R500 million by the government apparently never materialised, according to one report.

Read more on these topics

farm farming Land reform