Tongaat Hulett seeks R450m in civil claims but flags delays

Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

Sugar producer Tongaat Hulett is seeking a total of R450m in civil claims from four former board members and executives, but it has flagged legal delays and only expects full trials to begin in early 2023.

Legal objections on “highly technical” grounds have led to delays in civil proceedings against those implicated in dodgy bookkeeping, the group said on Tuesday, adding it remains determined to secure a fair outcome for shareholders.

The survival of Tongaat, valued at only R751m on the JSE, is still in question as it battles to come back from an accounting scandal, SA’s second biggest, which has seen its value plummet from R16bn in 2018.

The sugar producer, which traces its roots to the 1850s, asked the JSE to suspend trade in its shares in June 2019 after an investigation flagged accounting practices that meant previous financial results could not be relied on.

A PwC investigation was instituted after the arrival of current CEO Gavin Hudson. Managers are alleged to have overstated profits and the value of assets, with the group opening both criminal and civil cases.

In September 2020 the company instituted civil proceedings in the high court in Pietermaritzburg against former CEO Peter Staude, former CFO Murray Munro and former finance executive Sean Slabbert, who was also a director of Tongaat Hulett Sugar SA.

In separate proceedings, Tongaat Hulett Developments, a subsidiary of the group, instituted a civil case in the high court in Pietermaritzburg in February 2020 against former MD Michael Deighton.

The group had said previously it expected its civil cases to go to court in 2022.

“While the process has been significantly delayed through the filing of a number of interlocutory objections on highly technical arguments by the defendants, Tongaat Hulett is determined to pursue this matter and do everything within its power to secure a fair outcome for our shareholders,” company secretary Johann van Rooyen said in a statement.

The group is also eyeing the potential start of criminal trials as well, saying on Tuesday it believed a decision by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is “imminent”. The NPA has said previously it is hoping to finalise its decisions in early 2022.

Tongaat is still battling to regain the faith of the market, and had a tough 2021, notably hit by civil unrest in July that tore into profits, but also hit its property sale prospects in KwaZulu-Natal.

The group  is struggling under the weight of R5.8bn of net debt in SA, with interest costs absorbing its cash. In its half-year to end-September, auditors said the group can no longer reasonably expect to make a profit and can no longer factor in potential tax benefits of its accumulated losses.

The group announced in December it wants to raise as much as R4bn through a rights issue, likely in the first quarter of 2022, which will solve its SA debt problem while keeping its sugar interests intact.

In morning trade on Tuesday Tongaat’s shares were trading 1.7% lower at R5.57, having fallen 42.5% since November 17, when it flagged its proposed recapitalisation.

The group’s shares have fallen more than 95% over the past five years.