Bumper harvest for equity plan

18 August 2013 - 02:02 By CARLOS AMATO
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A decade after launching a trust to help workers buy land near his family wine farm - to his neighbours' scepticism - Franschhoek's Mark Solms is attracting attention from other farmers keen to follow suit

The Cape wine establishment thought Mark Solms was a bit nuts when he bought his ancestral Solms Delta estate near Franschhoek in 2001. And the feeling was mutual. Solms, a world-renowned neuropsychoanalyst and scion of an old winemaking family, saw an industry in deep denial about its festering legacy of slavery, dispossession and genocide.

The therapy he prescribed was based on hard cash rather than soft couches: the University of Cape Town professor went into business with his estate's workers. Solms and his neighbour, Richard Astor, mortgaged their own estates to secure a bank loan for their workers, who formed a trust and bought a third adjoining farm.

Together the three partners make wine for one label, Solms Delta, and split the profits three ways. All 180-odd members of the farmworkers' trust enjoy private medical cover, proper housing and schools, and the services of resident social workers. New workers join the trust, and all workers earn well above the proposed minimum farm wage of R150 a day.

A decade later, amid a tough wine market and rising social tension in the winelands, Solms and Astor's innovation looks increasingly sane. Their brand's output has rocketed from just 3000 cases in 2005 to 80 000 this year. Tourists flock to Delta Solms for a glimpse of what an equitable, profitable wineland might look like. They visit a museum honouring each slave who lived on the farm, and boogie at an annual Oesfees (harvest festival) celebrating the music of the ancestors.

For Solms, his approach is not just a luxury option for landed shrinks. He argues that white wine farmers have no rational choice but to make their workers partners. The crux, he says, is to do it without hedging your bets, with a sincere will to make it work.

"If we as wine farmers don't face the facts, we're f****d," says the ebullient Solms, who sports a wispy shock of hair à la Doc Brown in Back to the Future. "It's completely unsustainable. It's mad to think you can carry on like this - that we're going to get away with it. They know that it's not going to work, but I believe they're scared. They don't want to look at the facts, and they just hope the s**t is going to hit the fan after they're dead. And that's what they're bequeathing to their children.

"But what's holding them back are feelings of fear, guilt and shame. When you do face up to these things, then your ability to think comes back. Because you can't think about things you're not looking at. Then you can decide, with the workers: What are we going to do about this? It's not rocket science.

"It's normal to be scared, especially when you know these are ill-gotten gains ultimately: you just have to look at Zimbabwe and what Julius Malema is saying. They feel it coming closer and closer.

"So we have to take the matter in hand ourselves, and say: 'Okay, that's what happened in the past; it's a crime against humanity. But I also don't want to lose what I've got. I don't want to lose my farm. I want my children to stay here. So can we find some way to make reparations, to find a sustainable way forward, which doesn't involve me having to hang on a cross?' People don't find it difficult to understand that."

In the Solms Delta model, the interests of worker-owners and farmer-owners are fully aligned - unlike in the 50-odd state-funded equity deals in the sector. Farmers typically sold marginal portions of their land to workers, retaining a limited stake, which often did not inspire their committed support. Says Solms: "Many farmers were just recapitalising their farms through empowerment deals. So they give workers a piece of land that's not viable and don't support them, and then say when it fails, 'You see, I told you so'. So it just reconfirms their prejudices.

"Farmworkers are not genetically inferior; they have normal brains," says Solms. "If you really try to transfer the skills, you do. Of course, there are setbacks on the way - but then you say, 'How do we solve this?' rather than throwing up your hands and saying, 'It's all going wrong!'"

Solms says he and Astor are far from the only established owners bringing change to the sector. He has high praise for the efforts of Paul Cluver, Eben Sadie, Charles Back of Fairview, Johann Rupert of L'Ormarins and Marc Kent of Boekenhouts-kloof.

And the worker equity model is set to spread. The Delta Solms farmworkers' trust hopes to take over a fourth neighbouring property, partnering with a community on Meerrust Bosbou, a state-owned former forestry tract. Plans are afoot to build a business incubator and co-operative cellar with the African Vintners' Alliance, a group of the 12 main black wine producers, including Seven Sisters, Mahudi and Thandi.

In nearby valleys, the old guard are taking note. A 60-strong delegation of white fruit farmers from the Koue Bokkeveld visited Delta Solms recently to get advice on how to empower workers.

Worker equity does not only make for justice, it makes for good wine. Ownership inspires attention to detail, says Solms. "The attitude of the workers makes a world of difference to the product. It's the difference between a resentful cook doing the bare minimum and a foodie who loves what he's doing. And you have to live together and work together on a farm. So the quality of your life is enhanced by being able to look each other in the eye and feel a sense of common purpose."

Solms has two day jobs: lecturer in neurosurgery at St Bartholomew's Hospital and Royal London School of Medi-cine and chair of neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town. He specialises in the complex interface between neuroscience and psychoanalysis, but his ideas about money are bracingly accessible to the layman.

"I cannot understand why the assumption of the whole capitalist economy we have is that it's good to take as much as you can. What's that? Why is that a decent motivation? See how much can I accumulate at someone else's expense? It seems that's a generally accepted principle. And if you don't share that principle, life is so much better."

A better life for all who live there

"OUR lifestyle has changed," says Sanna Malgas, who is employed at Solms Delta.

A former domestic worker, Malgas now works at the estate's Museum Van der Caab. "I used to work very hard before, but I hated it. Now I enjoy working."

Since the beginning of the Solms Delta equity partnership in 2001, she says, the workers have discovered personal ambition.

"Regardless of who you are - even if you have just a Standard 1 - you can take on a new challenge, learn a new skill if you believe you can do it."

Rates of alcoholism and child abuse on Solms Delta and the other two farms in the partnership have dropped sharply, she says, thanks in part to the efforts of two full-time social workers.

"There are still three or four heavy drinkers, but it's a different story from other farms I've been to. Often a farmworker's first solution is the bottle. If we have problems and if the employer doesn't care about our problems, we drink instead of talk.

"But the most important benefit of the Wijn der Caab Trust has been educational opportunities for our children," says Malgas.

"We've built a creche and we have after-care at our junior school. Our kids can now attend a Model C high school and, depending on their results, they can go on to college or university. Three of them are at Boland Agricultural College in Stellenbosch, studying hospitality and viticulture. It would be good if they came back to work here - but we would prefer them to get top jobs in the wine industry."

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