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SA minority investors to form activist group to take on Tongaat

To press for change at debt-laden sugar producer.
Image: Moneyweb

A group of South African minority shareholders is coming together to press for change at debt-laden sugar producer Tongaat Hulett, its leader told Reuters, building on earlier efforts at Ascendis Health .

The move signals the further rise of minority shareholder activism in South Africa, after retail investors pushed Ascendis into an asset sale rather than a rights issue to stave off bankruptcy protection earlier this year.

Harry Smit, the guesthouse owner who spearheaded the campaign at Ascendis, is leading a group now taking on one of Southern Africa’s biggest sugar producers, which has been battling a huge debt pile amid an accounting fraud uncovered in 2019.

The group plans to increase its holding in Tongaat Hulett to 5% by the end of September, Smit told Reuters, spending around R50 million.

It will dilute some of its members’ up to 30% shareholding in Ascendis to build up the stake, he added.

Once it has achieved that 5% holding – which Smit says is necessary to persuade management to engage – the group will raise issues related to governance and executive pay, along with other areas that he declined to disclose.

According to the plan, which has not been previously reported, the group will also form a company to further increase its stake in Tongaat. “The intent is for way more than 5%,” he said.

The company, in an emailed response to Reuters, said it regularly engaged with stakeholders and encouraged minority shareholders to contact the company “to allow us to provide clarity where it is required”. It said it remained focused on implementing its existing debt reduction plan.

Branching out

Prior to becoming a shareholder activist, Smit ran a guesthouse in a coastal town around 400 km from Cape Town. After being forced to close his doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he instead devoted his time to his small investments on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Agriculture and agri-processing company Tongaat has taken measures to clean up its books after disclosing in 2019 that revenues, profits and assets had been overstated in previous years.

Tongaat, which also owns a huge commercial land bank, brought in new management, pared down debt and sold some assets to aid its recovery.

It has shed almost 90% of its value in the last two and a half years and will not be paying any dividends till its debt reaches a “sustainable level”, it said in its annual financial statement released last month.

It reported in July that its current liabilities – those to be paid within a year – exceed its current assets by R5.72 million, and that “a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the group and company’s ability to continue as a going concern”.

Other problems are beyond its control, investors said.

Recent unrest in KwaZulu Natal, where the company holds around 2 000 hectares of prime land that are a major driver of its valuation, has driven up the risk premium for real estate transactions in the area.

That has made it even harder for Tongaat to dispose of the asset to pay its dues, Gary Booysen, portfolio manager at RandSwiss, said.

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