Stake in the future for Cape wine workers

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The Independent Online
ANZILL ADAMS grew up hating the South African wine industry. Under apartheid his family was forcibly removed to the Cape's winelands to provide cheap Coloured (mixed-race) labour for white-owned estates.

They were a docile workforce - the dop system, by which workers were paid partly in alcohol, saw to that. Each shift started with half bottle of wine and wine breaks punctuated the day. Alcoholism was rife. "It was such an exploitative industry," says Mr Adams, an anti-apartheid activist who became a community worker for vineyard labourers. The end of apartheid transformed the business. Freed from sanctions, South African wines have expanded to meet demand.

But concerns about racism and exploitation persisted. Demands that Coloured and black workers be brought into management and ownership of the industry have been answered by two winemakers with estates near Paarl. Alan Nelson, of Nelson's Creek, and Charles Back, of Fairview, have sold or gifted land to labourers set to become the first in South Africa to make their own wine from grapes grown on their own land. The off-licence chain Oddbins has bought up the Fairview workers' first consignment and its ideologically sound dimension is expected to be hip when it hits UK shelves this summer under its own label, Fair Valley, being designed by the cartoonist Ralph Steadman. The Nelson's Creek workers' label, Klein Begin, expected to depict estate workers and their families, is being designed by a local artist.

Two experiments do not make a revolution but the development has been enough to bring Mr Adams on to Mr Nelson's payroll. Both deals rely heavily on the goodwill and liberal tendencies of the estate owners. Mr Nelson, an advocate, gave 25 acres of land to 16 estate families as a reward for turning a bankrupt estate into a success story.

When he bought Nelson's Creek a decade ago it was a shambles. Half the workers were so reliant on alcohol they left when he abolished the dop system. He promised the remainder they would be repaid if they turned the estate around. They did, largely unaided. Mr Nelson had a full-time business to tend to and initially there was no money for a farm manager. Mr Back's family have owned Fairview for three generations and he is one of the most successful estate owners in South Africa.

Mr Back admits that he is strongly motivated by a sense of justice. The industry, he says, should be compensating for the past. But the shy, gruff Mr Back is more comfortable playing up the business sense of a sale in which he purchased 17.4 hectares of land for 59 workers and sold them it at half price. The workers paid using government grants.

"My job is to make good quality wine, at the right price," says Mr Back who exports 80 per cent of his wines. "Exploitation does not help the quality of wine." Apartheid, he argues, killed productivity because the black man, quite rightly, wondered why he should make the white man richer. He says wryly that in the black man's situation he would not have lifted a shovel except to clobber the white baas.

Mr Back argues that helping workers secure their own land, to build houses on as well as grow grapes, undermines unhealthy paternalism fostered by apartheid. He wins because he offloads social responsibility for workers. They win because they gain control over their lives. No longer can the roof over their heads disappear with their job. It is a moot point, with growing mechanisation expected to bring cuts to vineyard workforces. It remains to be seen whether either deal is a model for reshaping the industry. In both, labourers will at first rely at least in part on grapes from their boss's estates. They will also have to use his production facilities. In the wine industry it can be decades before a profit is turned. There are also legalistic teething problems.

The workers of Nelson's Creek are already appealing to the government against crippling gift taxes which Mr Back's employees avoided because they bought the land, albeit at a bargain price. But it is a start, which has brought hopes to thousands of vineyard workers.

For Awie Adolf, a worker at Fairview, it is above all a chance for something better for his children.

His colleague, John du Preez, says land and home ownership is a dream come true. "Charles wanted to do this for us," he says. "But it is good for him and it is good for us. We deserve it. We have worked hard." It is an attitude of which Mr Back heartily approves.