‘This place restored my dignity’ Stories of the Solms-Delta farm workers

After years of covering illegal farm evictions and the plight of workers, journalist CRYSTAL ORDERSON finds inspiration and happiness in a picturesque corner of the Franschhoek valley.

The Solms-Delta wine estate employs close to one hundred workers. A trust established for farm workers and their families has earned the wine estate a reputation as a pioneer in the Western Cape and around the country. Yet the Solms-Delta vision and trust go far beyond shared land ownership: this act has given farm workers hope, and the beliefs that their future is bright and reconciliation is possible.

It is raining on the day I decide to visit Solms-Delta, and dark clouds hover in the sky. En route to Franschoek, I notice several farm workers walking through the rain. None even attempts to hitchhike or get a lift from passing motorists.

The situation of farm workers in post-apartheid South Africa has not changed much. In fact, despite a plethora of new laws enacted to protect them, some might even argue that their circumstances have worsened.

I want to make sense of this, and look to Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela of the University of Cape Town for possible answers. Her essay Past Traumas are a Present Problem argues that ‘traumatised people learn to “cut off” such painfulor stressful experiences’ by taking these out on others. This ‘acting out’ of trauma, the opposite of ‘working through it’, applies to both individuals and groups and perpetuates a cycle of violence.

The act, or inaction, of deciding to walk in the rain made me think of how apartheid shaped the lives and labour conditions of South African farm workers today. More importantly, how do farm workers themselves view their lives, 17 years after the country’s first democratic elections? How do they feel about reconciliation?

Though I will never be able to speak to the thousands of farm workers in the Western Cape, it is with these questions in mind that I head to Solms-Delta for more insight.

I am warmly welcomed by 42-year-old farm supervisor Johan O’Ryan. Dressed in a blue jacket and cap and addressing me in Afrikaans, O’Ryan tells me that he was born in Ceres and has lived at Solms-Delta since the late 1980s. The first thing I notice is his happiness and excitement about the happenings on the farm, where he works to motivate staff, supervise wine tours and oversee aspects of the business.

‘I started to work on the farm when it was still owned by the Pickstone family and was assisting with the irrigation. In those days the government still sent inspectors to farms to see that the workers behaved themselves.’ When the farm was sold a few years later, O’Ryan was appointed as a security guard. ‘This is where I saw a totally different world, the world of apartheid and racism.’

However, O’Ryan also feels that ‘1994 brought hope for a better future’ in South Africa, and right here at Solms-Delta. He recounts, ‘as a child we were often referred to as “hotnots” and had to call the farmer “baas”. I always refused to do that and at times had to pay the price for my pride.’ Recalling these difficult reminders of the country’s dark past is not easy, but O’Ryan says that living at Solms-Delta has helped him to reconcile and gain confidence about the future.

Many years later, O’Ryan met his first employer in Ceres, and the farmer apologised for his behaviour. ‘That apology was heartfelt and I felt wonderful.’

Sarie Petersen has been a farm worker all of her life. She shows me her hands, hardened by the picking and cutting of grapes; these hands have worked the land. She remembers the harsh living and working conditions of the past. ‘If it rained we had to work until you were wet and your hands were aching… We had no electricity and had an outside toilet and had one room that my two children shared with us.’ Petersen’s small family made do with wages of R72 and, she tells me, prayed for a good farmer to come along.

It seems that prayer has come true. Petersen says, ‘I forget how horrible the past was and how farmers used to treat us, now I am happy at work and feel respected as a human being.’

World-renowned neuroscientist Professor Mark Solms assumed partial ownership of the 320-year-old estate, determined to address social imbalances, and with a ‘vision that went much deeper than re-establishing its vineyards and cellars’. Solms also wanted to ‘do something about the legacy of his European forebears [who had settled in the Cape six generations before] and thereby address the pressing social and economic problems facing South Africa today’.

Under its current ownership, Solms-Delta has been described as ‘blazing the trail for new corridors of social and ethical reflection’.

Twenty-two-year-old veterinary graduate Coman Daniels was born on the farm, into a one-room house with a leaking roof.

‘We never had a proper house with lights or plugs,’ he recalls. ‘We suffered under apartheid and life was tough.’

Daniels explains that other farm workers are often surprised by the living conditions at Solms-Delta, and are surprised that employees are so happy. ‘People see us as the brekgat [boastful] farm.’ When I ask what makes him happy, he answers, ‘The fact is that I have opportunities to study. I live in a comfortable house. I can be a person.’

Daniels speaks confidently about staying on the farm, in part due to the relationship between Solms and the workers. ‘Mark treats us like equals and respects our views,’ Daniels explains. ‘We enjoy working and are positive about our future.’

Together with British philanthropist Richard Astor, Solms established a trust through which a one-third equity stake was given to the estate’s historically disadvantaged residents and employees. Profits from the farm have contributed to improved housing, social programming, and better access to healthcare and education.

Gobodo-Madikezela observes that Solms-Delta ‘illustrates the essence of transformative dialogue, a principled commitment to a communal ethic based on values embodied within a framework of responsibility for the other. Such a framework,’ she adds, ‘requires a process of moral imagination, a certain intentional openness to the possibility of reaching out beyond the self and towards the other.’

As I leave Solms-Delta, it is clear that while these farm workers do not think about the word ‘reconciliation’ every day, they are living proof that it is possible.

Crystal Orderson is a freelance journalist.

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