Mark Solms, Fanie Karoles, Richard Astor and Nico Jansen at the innovative Solms-Delta wine estate. (Images: Paula Wilson Media Consulting)
Melissa Jane Cook
Among the tendrils of grape vines, the plump, juicy green and tempting, sultry red orbs, the workers at the innovative Solms-Delta wine estate get to crush the fruit and have their taste of the profits too.
Known for its prize-winning wines, wine tours and tastings, Solms-Delta, a farm with a rich history, lends one to believe that a happy worker is a productive worker. This philosophy is evident in the farm’s accolades. Solms-Delta is known as one of the country’s most progressive wine estates, and one that generates real results.
Located in the Franschhoek valley, in the heart of the Western Cape’s winelands, it acknowledges and recognises that everyone is the boss. The 180 inhabitants who live on the land are all shareholders in the business and they all benefit from the wine-making and the numerous other activities the farm offers.
Mark Solms bought the 320-year old farm in 2001. He learned about its history, which is deeply rooted in slavery history, and from the very start he had a distinctive ethos, a different way he wanted the farm to run. For Solms, it was about empowering others through co-ownership and ensuring the brutality of slavery and the indignity of being exploited, would never happen again.
The power of three
Just three years after buying Zandvliet-Delta farm, Solms and his neighbour, British philanthropist Richard Astor, owner of Lübeck farm, took out bonds on their properties to secure a loan for the workers to buy the adjacent Deltameer farm. It was an unprecedented move, transferring their equity into a trust and putting up their land as collateral. Solms-Delta is now made up of three farms, and all three share in the profits. Solms, Astor and the farm workers and residents are all beneficiaries. Of the combined Solms-Delta, Solms, Astor and the trust each own a third.
Profits from Solms-Delta, which produces 30 000 cases of wine annually under labels such as Cape Jazz and Africana, allow the workers and tenants to pay for health care, school fees, and a social worker to tackle issues of alcoholism and domestic violence. The workers who now crush the grapes and create the wine are able to read about the lives of their slave ancestors who planted the first vines. “You can’t take on the ownership of such a property and not also take on its history,” explains Solms.
He hired historians to identify the original slaves on the farm and research their genealogy. Archaeologists excavated and studied the site’s 7 000-year-old history and found intricate Stone Age tools that belonged to the indigenous Khoisan people whose descendants are still among the workers on the estate today.
“We set about, literally and figuratively, digging up the past,” says Solms, who is a sixth-generation landowner in this vine-carpeted valley. For years, he and his team went about retracing the complex history of the 30ha plot of land, searching for clues that would help him better understand the lives of the workers and their slave ancestors. Eventually, they came across the remains of a 7 000-year-old civilisation, not more than 50m from Solms’ bedroom.
The workers and tenants say Solms’ project has transformed their lives. “He has changed everything on this farm,” says Medwin Pietersen, a 31-year-old descendant of slaves who was born on the farm and now serves as its brand ambassador at international wine shows.
It is a historical fact that the magnificent wine farms of the Western Cape – major tourist attractions – were built on the misery of human slavery. Solms wanted to expose what really happened on his idyllic vineyard and begun a land-reform project that seeks justice for the slaves’ descendants. To retell the story, a museum was created in the historic wine cellar at Solms-Delta. Once a place of punishment where 18th century slaves were beaten regularly, it is now a place of learning that documents the slave legacy.
“The wine industry was built on slavery,” Solms says. “We had to tell our stories so we could learn what went wrong and how to put it all right… Slavery was absolutely fundamental to the working and building of all these farms, and we’re still living with the consequences today. The owners are always rich and white, and the workers are poor and brown, and that stems from the slavery.”
He explains that slaves were first brought to the Cape from West Africa and the Dutch East Indies in the middle of the 17th century. “Thousands of slaves were shipped in [and] they soon outnumbered the white settlers. By the time slavery was finally abolished here in 1838, an estimated 63 000 slaves had been imported.”
After these farm workers were “freed”, they were still restrained by a merciless system that traded wine for labour, known as the dop (meaning a drink) system, which kept them in a permanent state of alcohol dependency. Added to this misery, the workers were oppressed by apartheid in the 20th century and even today, Cape farm workers are generally among the poorest paid in the country, often relegated to uninhabitable housing, without electricity or water, vulnerable to eviction and exposed to unsafe pesticides.
Solms cares greatly about quality, profits and working conditions. His philosophy embraces everything to do with the farm – the soil, the mood of the worker who picks the grapes and the final product.
Located in the Franschhoek valley, in the heart of the Western Cape’s winelands, Solms-Delta acknowledges and recognises that everyone is the boss. The 180 inhabitants who live on the land are all shareholders in the business and they all benefit from the wine-making and the numerous other activities the farm offers.
A glass for everyone
The golden thread isn’t simply to improve worker pay and benefits, he points out, but actually to involve disadvantaged workers at all levels of production and give them equity for their work. “Our fates are inextricably linked to each other. We must recognise our mutual needs and find a way they can be met, because they most certainly can… The kinds of problems that need to be tackled in this country are internal things – attitudes, relationships,” he says.
The history and the people who have lived on the land for generations, Solms says, are South Africa’s cultural terroir. Without doing right by them, “you can’t make honest wine, much less great wine”. “Wine is made by hand, and the attitude of the labourers affects what is in the bottle, from the way they tend the vines and select the grapes. If someone is preparing it with resentment and hatred, what will he make?”
Music and merry making
One of Solms-Delta’s most successful ventures beyond the vines has been its music programme. There are four bands on the farm, including an 80-person marching band. The estate hosts an annual harvest festival, celebrating the fruit of their labours, with farm owners and workers from the Franschhoek valley. Each year, about 3 500 visitors to the festival discover the tradition of Cape music, made by the farm workers.
This place of song and laughter, more than harvesting grapes and making wine, is also place of music and archaeological finds. “We farm as much with music as we do with wine,” says Solms, who explains that the staff members are all motivated by the work, and that they are acknowledged.
The Delta Trust and Wijn De Caab Trust
The Delta Trust, established in 2007, benefits the historically disadvantaged residents of the wider Franschhoek valley. This region, like most South African communities, remains sharply divided. “The inequities in our society cannot be overcome by social engineering alone. Personal effort is required, on a human scale,” says Solms. “The Delta Trust facilitates and supports local efforts of this kind and this way contributes to nation-building. It is active in the areas of sports, education, culture, heritage and social upliftment.”
The Music van de Caab Project is the largest of the Delta Trust projects. It is a development and empowerment initiative, which serves about 150 participants between the ages of three and 60. All participants are from previously disadvantaged communities. The project focuses on playing and developing local rural music. Participants attend regular instrumental and choir rehearsals as well as individual music lessons, playing on sponsored instruments and performing at special occasions.
“The Wijn de Caab Trust [a one-third owner of Solms-Delta] was established to benefit the historically disadvantaged residents and employees of the wine estate. It supports all people who live and/or work on the farm, and their direct dependants. The trust provides upgraded housing, health benefits, and free education – a crèche on the farm, excellent schooling, after-school support and access to bursaries for tertiary education.”
Solms says that adults get the opportunity to take part in adult education and attend skills training courses. “There is a full-time social worker on the farm, available to all Wijn de Caab Trust beneficiaries. The Wijn de Caab Trust was established in 2005.”
The single biggest allocation from the trust has gone towards improving education and every employee now has an interest in making Solms-Delta a success.
Solms and Astor received the Inyathelo Award for Community Philanthropy in 2010 in recognition of the equity and profit-sharing initiative which revolutionised the quality of life of their farmworkers. This award celebrates and profiles philanthropists who are making a difference in South Africa by taking responsibility for the country’s social development.