‘Our town will be a dead town’

Langeberg & Ashton Foods buildings and yards line a significant stretch of Ashton’s main road. Jacobus de Koker isn’t permanently employed but says he has been working at the factory for years. Photo: Elana van der Watt/Food For Mzansi

Langeberg & Ashton Foods buildings and yards line a significant stretch of Ashton’s main road. Jacobus de Koker isn’t permanently employed but says he has been working at the factory for years. Photo: Elana van der Watt/Food For Mzansi

To the people of Ashton, the impending closure of Tiger Brands’ Western Cape fruit canning plant is a frightening reality. They instinctively know that agriculture is keeping their town alive, and everyone from the shopkeepers to the teachers share a deep worry for the future. Food For Mzansi journalist Elana van der Watt reports.

It’s a small town with only about 3 500 households and a total population of 13 000. Every year, more than 300 farmers send 100 000 tonnes of fruit into town where it gets processed, canned or pureed, and then shipped out again to 40 countries across the globe.

Yet today, not a single resident seems to be unworried about the future. The 70-year-old Langeberg & Ashton Foods is about to close down and residents worry not only for the 250 permanent and 4 300 seasonal workers who stand to lose their jobs, but also for the surrounding farmers who would instantly lose their market and the local economy that could grind to a near halt.

Teachers might lose their jobs too

“Catastrophic is a harsh word but there’s really no other word for it,” says Ashton Primary School principal Jakkie Burger.

Only five of his 15 staff members get their salaries from the state. The rest are SGB positions, approved by the school governing body only if it can raise enough money to pay their salaries. And much of the school’s income come from farmer parents, along with thousands of rand in maintenance services that farmer parents often do for a fraction of the real cost.

If these parents lose their source of income, Burger will be faced with the possibility of having to let some staff go. “Everyone plays their part. Who is let go and who gets to stay?”

At the Vulindlela Edu-Care Centre, teachers Nontobeko Sixhaso and Yoliwe Spofane fear for their own jobs. The crèche has not received funding from the department of social development since 2018 and is sustained by school fees from parents.

Most of the 125 children have parents working at the factory, the teachers say, and many of them have both parents employed there. “The children will stay at home,” says Sixhaso. “We won’t get school fees and we’ll all be out of a job when [the factory] closes down.”

Extreme poverty will increase

The crèche is situated in Zolani, a township community on the outskirts of Ashton. Poverty is already rife. The township consists of some 1 800 households but the housing waiting list contains 1 300 names.

The Langeberg Unemployment Forum has a database of 2 600 people looking for jobs but are unable to find any. The forum’s secretary, Vuyo Mrubata, says the factory’s closure will be like shutting down the last hope for their members. “Families will be destroyed. Crime will escalate…”

“We’ll eat each other,” adds the forum’s visibly unsettled chairperson and ward committee member Mbuyiselo Selani. He points to young men and women around him, already without work. “You can see, people are sitting outside. It’s a cruel and big matter.”

“To me it spells hunger. Poverty in huge capital letters,” says Nwabisa Mangcola, an employee at the municipal library in Zolani. Along with Zandile Nkita and Khanyisile Manyosi, they guess that 90% of their fellow residents will be affected by the closure.

“Grade 12 learners also work there during season time to get money for [tertiary study] registration the following year. And some schools get food parcels from Tiger Brands – those 20 litre buckets. Some families can’t even afford those basic needs and are salvaged by that small parcel.

“The factory was there when we were born. Our parents worked there. Even some of our grandparents worked there. Now our town will be a dead town.”

According to marketing material, the factory has processed up to 100 000 tonnes of peaches, apricots, pears, apples and guavas each year. It has exported 86% of its processed products. Source: Langeberg & Ashton Foods corporate video

The reason for Ashton’s establishment

Ashton owes its very existence to the factory. The town only got municipal status in 1956 after two canneries – now amalgamated and owned by Tiger Brands – were established in the 1940s and sparked development around it. Now the local authority fears the company will be a catalyst in the opposite direction.

In a statement released yesterday (Friday, 24 June 2022) the Langeberg Municipality says that the administration will mainly be impacted by the loss of revenue and the increase of indigent households.

“This means there will be an increase in indigent households who the municipality must provide free basic services for” on top of “a reduction in the net revenue that is normally generated [in fees and taxes]”.

It also highlights the expected economic fallout. “Small, medium and micro enterprises, contractors, suppliers, local farmers and the staff that depend on [Langeberg & Ashton Foods] will lose their main source of income. This will create job losses on farms and fruit packhouses. The closure also affects the secondary economy that feeds from the factory being operational.

“The local taxi industry that provides transport to the workers and those operating in and around the factory would lose income. The factory [also] had an operational clinic that provided health care services to workers. The closure … would create a further burden on our health system.”

Two of the affected business owners are Akhona Nel and Niel Fabricius. Nel runs a tiny car wash in Zolani but expects a hard knock to business when his factory worker customers stop coming.

Fabricius operates on a larger scale and runs a tractor repair centre and agri supply business right across from the factory. “About 90% of my customers are farmers who grow peaches and pears,” he says. “We are a factory town [and] this will have a direct effect on our business.”

Is there any hope for some saving grace?

The municipality says it will facilitate and assist where possible to try and save the factory.

The unemployment forum has its hopes on a potential buyer. A consortium of farmers have tried and are continuing to attempt to buy the plant.

Some people hold on to a faint hope that Tiger Brands could still have a last-minute change of heart. School principal Burger is skeptical. “To the top management we’re just a line on their balance sheet.”

There are those who believe that government, with its culture of wasteful expenditure, can reroute some money to their plight. “The government will have failed us if nothing gets done to save that factory,” the librarians reckon.

Fabricius is hoping that the media spotlight will prompt intervention – from anywhere – to keep the factory open. “It must stay open,” he says. “It must.”

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