Fonds A1724 - Zebediela Citrus Estate, Records

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Zebediela Citrus Estate, Records


  • 1862 - 1974 (Creation)

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Extent and medium

100 boxes and 60 volumes

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Name of creator

Administrative history

"Zebediela" derives from a corruption of the name given to Mamukebe, an Ndebele chief, whose diplomatic skills in the mid-19th century Northern Transvaal earned him the appellation "Mabediela" - the one who pacifies

In the Sekukuni War of 1852 waged by the South African Republic against the Pedi, Zebediela supplied a contingent of four hundred auxiliaries in addition to furnishing supplies of corn and cattle. In return for this show of loyalty, Zebediela's clan were exempted from taxation for a while, and in 1885, a location was beaconed off by the Z.A.R. for them.

In 1917 a massive tract of land adjacent to Zebediela's location was purchased by African Realty Trust, a company incarnate as I. W. Schlesinger; Schlesinger (1871-1949): financier, entrepreneur, founder of what was to become the South African Censorship Board, one-time employer of A. W. G. Champion and a benefactor of the University of the Witwatersrand. Originally from the Bowery in New York, Schlesinger came to South Africa in 1902 as an extremely successful Insurance broker.

The following year he launched the African Realty Trust and with the proceeds of land sales in Orange Grove, Killarney, Parkhurst. and Marlboro, he established the African Life Assurance Society in 1904. By 1905 he had bought out J. B. Robinson's South African Bank, developing it into the Colonial Banking and Trust Company to which in 1911 was added the African Guarantee and Indemnity Company. With a base secure in banking, property and finance, Schlesinger began to diversify his business interests. In the entertainment field, he set up African Consolidated Theatres and African Film Productions Limited, the latter producing the weekly 'African Mirror' - the world's second oldest newsreel. The South African Broadcasting Corporation itself derives from a chain of radio stations sponsored by Schlesinger in the mid-1920s. Afamal, to name another Schlesinger enterprise, claimed for many year's to he the largest advertising agency outside Britain and the U.S.A.

One of Schlesinger's more ambitious schemes was the establishment of Zebediela Citrus Estate. Purchased in 1917, development of the estate began immediately with bush-clearing projects, dam building and soil preparation; the first trees were planted in 1918 and within a decade, nine square miles of orange trees had been planted, the fruit of which was already entering the export market.

Schlesinger's agents were mandated to invite investors locally and overseas to finance the scheme by purchasing 5-acre stands and leaving the company to take responsibility and a commission for producing the crop. Various marketing techniques were used, with U U. Robins-Browne, Schlesinger's man in Singapore, apparently appealing to the colonial mentality in his claim that 'The native of South Africa is a very fine specimen of a servant., being, big, healthy and strong. They cost about: ú3 per month. '

The three thousand black workers at Zebediela were, however, paid considerably less. In 1879 the Native Commissioner for the district reported that '[Zebediela's] people are rich and well-to-do - as none of his young men will work elsewhere than at the 'Diamond fields' - where they 'earn high wages'.

However, by the early twentieth century, much had changed. The diamond fields were no longer such an attractive option, and the Estate's management reported that the supply of labour on the estate was plentiful, and prepared to accept a wage of roughly 25/- per month, excluding provisions. In the 1930s however, the South African economy moved from a period of depression to one of rapid development, with the demand and competition for labour increasing accordingly as migrants sought: the more favourable labour markets of the Witwatersrand. The shortage of labour at Zebediela became acute.

The management of Zebediela was now obliged to recruit labour further afield through the established recruiting agencies operating from Messina, the Mozambican border, and across the Limpopo. Thus from the mid-1930s, the bulk of Zebediela's labour was drawn from Nyasaland, Portuguese East Africa and Northern Rhodesia. This provided no long term solution to the labour shortage, as desertion rates were high; in the opinion of A. R. van Blerk, Estate Secretary, 'The northern native, after his rough trek through the African jungle, could not settle to steady rural routine and was an easy prey to the lures of the not too scrupulous operators in the labour racket of some 30, 000 extra-Union Africans recruited, at the rate of 2300 n year over 1: 1 years, only 40% remained to serve their contracted time'. (3)

This high rate of desertion was, however, not an unreasonable response to the onerous work, low wages and poor living conditions which obtained at the estate. Indeed, a managerial report recorded the opinion of a Department of Native Affairs Representative in the late 1930s who 'condemned our old compounds as uncomfortable, insanitary and likely to become a disgrace if ever we had a serious outbreak of disease. Against this it was agreed that the raw native labourer is naturally dirty and prefers the squalor of a wattle and daub hut to a brick and iron-roofed building'.

Fortunately this attitude did not persist. In the 1940s, much effort was expended in devising living conditions compatible with labour stabilisation and economic rationality. Particularly valuable was the input of P. J. Quin, Director of the estate from 1936 to 1965, an outspoken opponent of 'the de-Africanising of the African', and a person highly regarded by the Nationalist government. On the basis of the findings of Quin's sociological study of the Bapedi, the accommodation and diet of Black workers on the estate were improved considerably.

It has been argued that Zebediela constituted something of a prototype for rural industry in South Africa. Indeed, its receptivity to industrial and mechanical advances - facilitated by the immense financial strength of the Schlesinger Organisation - was exceptional.

For many years the estate relied on white female seasonal labour, employed as packers and graders during the annual packing season; drawn largely from the local community these women, aged between 16 and 45, were accommodated within the benevolent confines of a hostel in which the virtues of thrift, propriety and Christianity were encouraged. It is interesting to note that recruiting officers of the Union Defence Force during the Second World War were advised that their cause was unlikely to be met with enthusiasm at Zebediela, as over 80% of the women did not support the government's stance vis-à-vis the war.

In the mid 1950s, economic rationality dictated that a transition be made from white to black seasonal female labour, a development which contradicted earlier racist assertions that black women were incompetent in that capacity. Nonetheless, the transition coincided with a major survey of labour relations and arrangements conducted by a consultancy, Bedaux Company of Africa, which resulted in the adoption of a sophisticated labour programme based on the principles of Taylorism.

Letaba Estates was an enterprise similar to Zebediela, although run on a smaller scale. Originally intended a settlement scheme for ex-servicemen after World War I, the incidence of malaria and snakes and the estate's general isolation apparently dissuaded immigrants from settling there permanently. Schlesinger's involvement in the estate in this period, the 1920s, is unclear; the estate was laid out by United Fruit and Citrus Farms Ltd, a company owned by the Investment Corporation of Africa Ltd, after the former owners, Messrs Judas and Gluckman, had incurred large debts with the Colonial Bank. Letaba Estates came under overt Schlesinger control in March 1931.

An adjacent farm, Beaconsfield, was purchased from the owners of Valencia Estates, the Foy family, in 1939.

In 1953 ownership of Letaba was transferred from Letaba Estates Ltd, to another Schlesinger holding company, the African Irrigated Land Company Ltd (AILCO). Established in 1923, AILCO had been concerned with managing Kendrew Estate, a somewhat unsuccessful venture in the Graaff-Reinet district, where irrigation problems effectively prevented the proposed citrus cultivation scheme from succeeding.

In 1967, Consolidated Citrus Estates (CCE) took over the management of Letaba and Zebediela from AILCO and African Realty Trust (ART) respectively, with the effect of concentrating all citrus production under one company. Valencia Estates, adjacent to Letaba, joined the fold in 1965.

CCE had, meanwhile, been running a citrus estate at Muden, in Natal, since 1957. This enterprise had been founded in 1917 as Golden Valley Citrus Estates; for various reasons, primarily recurrent labour shortages and its situation in the Midlands' hail belt, the farm was not a financial success and thus in 1944 Golden Valley went into voluntary liquidation.

Muden was then bought by the Pan African Land Company, a Schlesinger subsidiary which managed the farm until it was taken over by African Canning and Packing Company (ACPC) in about 1950.

ACPC, a Port Elizabeth-based canning factory (and the major shareholder in AILCO) dated back to 1921 when it was established to service Schlesinger's interests in several large pineapple plantations near Grahamstown at Langholm Estates - another ART project.

Subsequent developments within the Schlesinger Organisation are barely alluded to. It seems that ART sold out to African Consolidated Investment Corporation, a body closely allied to the two major property holding companies Townsview Investments (Pty) Ltd, and SOREC - Schlesinger Organisation Real Estate Corporation.

One body which remains enigmatic is the Native Farmers Association of Africa. Formed in 1912 by one of the founders of the African National Congress, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the company was originally floated to enable Africans to buy land before the passage of the Native Land Act of 1913. Within months the company ran into financial difficulties, and was obliged to accept a partnership with Schlesinger, an arrangement which was to benefit Schlesinger greatly.

It was this Association which purchased, amongst others, the farms Daggakraal and Driefontein which later became the object of the Nationalist government's resettlement policy.

During the 1960s, Schlesinger's insurance arm, African Eagle and Guarantee Life, expanded rapidly; presumably it was this fact which attracted the attentions of the Anglo American Corporation. In 1974 Rand Selection, a subsidiary of Anglo American, bought John Schlesinger's controlling share in the Schlesinger Organisation. Included in the deal were such money spinners as Western Bank (later trading as Wesbank, a Barclays Bank enterprise) and Soroc and Townsview, later amalgamated with Amaprop.

Little remains of the Schlesinger Empire in South Africa today. Mandy Morons, Chief Executive of Schlesingers from the mid 1960s, resigned in favour of Gavin Relly in 1975 to concentrate on the development of Schlesinger European Investments, a new comglomerate based in London. At the last count, Rand Selection had a stake of 40% in SEI; by now, it is probably considerably more (sic).

Nb. Schematic Diagram of "Schlesinger Organisation" is not included in this published copy


1 Rangoon Gazette, 11 May 1927

2 S. N. I

3 Farmers Weekly, 1 June 1958

4 A. R. Van Blerk, 'Labour Report', 1953

Archival history

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Content and structure area

Scope and content

This collection comprises the records of some of the land companies within the massive Schlesinger organisation, with the focus, through sheer volume, being on Zebediela Citrus Estate.

Numerous problems arose when trying to devise a cataloguing system: on the one hand were the citrus estates themselves and on the other, their financial underpinning of the real estate and investment companies that formed part of the Schlesinger Organisation. This was further complicated by the mergers, purchases and liquidations of the holding companies.

Was one then to organise the material in terms of holding company - African Realty Trust, African Irrigated Land Company and so on - or citrus estate? While Zebediela was obviously the focus of the collection, it could equally have been catalogued as merely one of the larger African Realty Trust concerns.

A compromise was therefore struck between chronological and substantive coherence and commercial accuracy. Thus sections A-C are concerned primarily with Citriculture, and are classified according to estate - Zebediela, Letaba and Nuden respectively. By 1962, Muden, Letaba and Zebediela had all been consolidated Into one company - Consolidated Citrus Estates, and thus form section D.

There is an artificial distinction between Sections A and E - Zebediela and African Realty Trust, respectively; however, in the interests of coherence, this was felt to he justifiable.

Unfortunately, few records remain to document events at Zebediela beyond the early 1960s. Zebediela then fell within Lebowa, having been taken over by the South African Bantu Trust in the mid 1970s. The latter, in turn handed it over to the Bantu Investment Corporation in 1976 for the sum of R1. 2 million.

Other records in this collection document, in bare outline, developments in other land companies owned by the Schlesinger Organisation.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


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Copyright Historical Papers Research Archive, The Library, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

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Archivist's note

Compiled by K.A. Eales, 1984

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