Wine-farm workers enjoying the fruits of their labour

Described as the gateway to the Karoo, Montagu in the Western Cape is known for its sheer beauty and "community of smiles and sunshine", according to a tourist brochure. Yet for many farm workers, such as Johanna de Koker, life on the farms in the scenic Koo valley outside the popular tourist town is far from idyllic.

"Farm workers start work at 7.30am and work until 6.30pm," said De Koker, who joined in a protest march in the area this week. "We pick apples, pears and peaches. I earn R350 a week and I have three children to look after. I just can't come out on that. I won't stop striking until there is a new deal on the table. Not a damn will we stop until we earn more money."

Farm workers in several small towns across the Boland joined the strike that began on Tuesday and was called off the next day. The farm workers had been hoping the government would adjust the minimum prescribed wage for farm workers from R69.39 to R150 a day. Minister of Labour Mildred Oliphant has announced a review of the minimum wage in the sectoral determination and public hearings on this critical issue will take place until mid-December. However, the labour department has since made it clear that sector wage talks for farm workers will only be completed in April.

In De Doorns in the Hex River Valley, about 300 farm workers waited on a sports field for hours on Tuesday for trade union federation Cosatu's provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich to return. The crowd was expecting him to bring them news that the farmers had relented and put an improved monetary offer on the table. Instead, he said the strike had been called off indefinitely and workers were encouraged to unionise or organise in collective bargaining bodies and negotiate directly with their employers.

The demand for a R150 a day living wage remained unchanged, Ehrenreich said. But this time around a demand for farm workers to have a share in the profits of the export harvest had also been added.

Last month, De Doorns was the scene of violent protests by thousands of farm workers. For this reason farmers had taken no chances and had hired private security companies to guard the farms and protect their families and workers.

The violent protests did not reach the glorious Franschhoek valley in the Stellenbosch municipality, but earlier this week there were reported incidents of stone-throwing and small protests by farm workers in the gourmet food and wine heartland.

With a rich history that draws on the French Huguenots who settled in the valley in 1688, the wine estates encircling the Franschhoek village are a big drawcard for tourists, despite the unhappiness lurking below the travel brochure veneer.

However, one farm stands out because of its unique attempt to break the cycle of poverty among its historically disadvantaged tenants and employees.

With the farm workers now owning a share of the farm, there is a feel-good atmosphere about the Solms-Delta Wine Estate, which is 15km outside the village. Johan O'Ryan, the Khoisan farm supervisor at the 322-year-old estate, knows how blessed he has been to be in the right place at the right time.

O'Ryan (45) believes that Solms-Delta is a working example of what can be done to address the tragic past of farm workers and provide them with what will hopefully be a bright future.

Loaded with humour that he attributes to his mix of Irish blood, O'Ryan is proud of his roots and passionate about his newly acquired skills in wine-making. A descendent of a slave, he remains acutely aware that the current strike has been born out of necessity. A decade ago, he was in same dire situation as other poor farm workers. "My life was tough. I used to have to go to work outside the farm [in town]."

Although he has lived on the farm since the 1980s, O'Ryan was forced to work as a security guard to eke out a living. There was no work on the farm, there was poverty all around him and he could foresee no possibility of security for the workers.

It all changed when neuroscientist Mark Solms returned to South Africa from Britain in 2001. He bought a farm in Franschhoek and went into partnership with his neighbour, Richard Astor.

The two farmers put up their farms as collateral to persuade the bank to allow the purchase of a third neighbouring farm for the farm workers, and the three farms joined into one estate to create Solms-Delta. Trees, not fences, mark the boundaries of the farms.

"The farmers established a trust for us and the funding of the trust comes from our one-third share in the Solms-Delta estate," said O'Ryan. "We get a third of everything and it is all managed by the trust. We decide what we want done. Houses were built for us, we get medical aid, schooling for our children, a crèche, DStv and we still earn a salary."

Salaries are on average R100 a day, he said, but the farm workers have all the other benefits and a giant share of the business. O'Ryan said drinking on the farm is no longer prevalent and there is a resident social worker to deal with any problems that might arise.

"We are still young in the wine business, but we are trying," he said. "The changes that have been made on this farm are amazing. You feel there is a vast difference between what was before and what is now. Everyone on the estate is living together as one big family."

O'Ryan said the farmers and workers deal with any problems that arise by talking and making plans and the atmosphere on the farm is relaxed and invigorating. As passionate about growing herbs as he is about making wine, he said the Solms-Delta range consists mainly of Rhône varietals and they are constantly exploring new methods and breaking boundaries.

Solms said that the wine estate is a work in progress as it tries to overcome the historical imbalances of the apartheid legacy. "It is working. There are multiple ways to try to improve the quality of lives of others who live and work with you," he said. "You can't live together and resent each other. We are living on a farm and it is a communal experience, yet we now more or less like each other."

Solms said they are not trying to pretend that they have created Utopia on the estate. But farmers who blame their farm workers for being drunk should look at the causes. He said this is the reason the estate employs social workers to assist farm workers in treating problems.

"Alcoholism does not come from nowhere," he said. "It is part of the tragic history we are all still living through. Why else would anyone want to obliterate his consciousness?"

A museum has been established on the farm and it does not shy away from controversy in its presentation of social and cultural heritage. Instead, it highlights the lives of those who were marginalised in the farming world.

"All old farms were built on slavery," said Solms. "Some of our farm workers are direct descendants of slaves. We don't want to try to bury our painful past."

In terms of labour relations, Solms said it is different on this estate because they are all stakeholders in the business, and all pull together to make it work. "Our wine does better because it is made by people who care," he said.

The Solms-Delta estate closed its gates for one day this week to protect its farm workers and staff. Acutely aware of the suffering of other farm workers, O'Ryan said his wish is that his wine estate's model might be replicated on many farms in South Africa.

But in places like the remote farm outside Montagu where De Koker has lived for the past 22 years, there is little chance of meaningful change overnight.

"Our living conditions are very bad. I am the only one on the farm with a toilet in my house, because I complain a lot and the farmers want to keep me quiet," said the 43-year-old mother. "They even cut the electricity to our houses. All I can do is try to earn more money."

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Glynnis Underhill
Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country.

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