A Perfect Pinotage Pairing: Wine Farmer Philanthropy in South Africa

Let me start by saying I wanted to write an energising piece about the increasing predominance of wine farmers linked with philanthropy – and it would probably have ended up sounding a tad romantic, with visions of committed philanthropists making funding decisions to change South Africa’s entrenched dynamics of poverty and injustice, while sipping on a glass of world-renowned pinotage as the sun sets over their vineyards and workers bring in the last of the day’s grape harvest.

This blog hasn’t turned out quite that way.

The grape-growing and wine-making industry in South Africa has two interlinked histories. These are stories of honour, but more stories of horror. Firstly, there is the honour of regular multiple international awards for our excellent quality wines. Superb wines. And, secondly, there is the horror of the industry’s historical roots in slave labour and the dop system (which saw farmers compensate farm workers for their labour with part-payment in rations of low-grade alcohol), resulting in the Western Cape remaining in first place for the highest incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome in the world. While the dop system is now almost (but not entirely) defunct, the legacy of addiction, alcohol abuse and its related social dysfunction continues.

Farm workers in South Africa continue to suffer dire and exploitative working conditions, often without - according to some reports - any paid leave (sick, vacation or maternity); and often living in dreadful conditions on farms. The more I read about links between wine farmers and philanthropy, the more I only came across material documenting the ongoing state of exploitative and oppressive labour practices on wine farms in South Africa. Two reports in particular stand out, both of which caused much controversy at the time of their release – the Human Rights Watch report titled Ripe with Abuse, and the BAWSE report titled Farmworker Voices: Reflections of Worker Conditions on South African Farms.

That said, there have clearly been massive efforts to clean up South Africa’s wine industry in terms of its dubious history and inheritance of oppressive labour practices, and to break down the entrenched whiteness of the wine-making industry. There are – among a range of other interventions – empowerment initiatives; winemaker support programmes to diversify the demographic profile of South Africa’s winemakers; commitments by representative bodies to hand over to the police any farmers found still engaging in providing alcohol on a daily or regular basis to their farm workers; and many wine farm owners who have made the requisite effort to provide decent lodgings for their farm workers (often seasonal), and generally offer improved conditions of service.

In the last decade or two, many wine farm owners have woken up to the heritage of horror in their industry, and have started doing what they can not only to right these wrongs on their own farms, but to engage in philanthropy more broadly. The Western Cape, in particular, has not only seen a number of philanthropists buying wine farms, but a number of wine farmers becoming philanthropists.

It seems, perhaps, that wine farming and philanthropy are becoming an increasingly well-matched pair. Wine estate names whose owners are involved in philanthropy include, among many others, Jordan, Val de vie, Graham Beck and Meerendal. Two names, however, stand out for me in terms of the various initiatives undertaken by each to improve not only conditions on their farms but to engage philanthropically in broader social issues.

They are Wendy Appelbaum and Mark Solms.

Wendy Appelbaum is, by some estimates, the richest woman on the African continent. Now owner of De Morgenzon wine estate in Stellenbosch, Appelbaum is one of Africa’s most active philanthropists, having donated over R274 million to date.  As the daughter of Sir Donald Gordon, Wendy now oversees the Donald Gordon Foundation and the Gordon family philanthropy. The De Morgenzon website states that while Appelbaum has had a long, highly successful career in business and in financial investment (among other areas), her philanthropic involvement includes her being a director of the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre (Wits University’s Faculty of Health Sciences’ teaching hospital); a trustee of The Donald Gordon Foundation (one of the largest private charitable foundations in Southern Africa) and also sits on the boards of various other non-profit organisations.  In addition, Appelbaum is a member of the Global Philanthropists’ Circle (GPC). For more information, refer to www.demorgenzon.co.za/about_people.html.

Mostly recently, Appelbaum demonstrated the power of philanthropic involvement in defending citizen rights.  In 2012, Appelbaum learned that garnishee orders had been obtained against some of the workers on her wine farm, with up to 80 percent of their monthly income being attached via illegal emolument attachment orders (EAOs). It has happened in many EAO cases that workers were left with no take-home income at all. Taking the whole matter to court through the Stellenbosch University Legal Aid Clinic, the focus was on the root causes behind the EAO system. The court ruled in their favour against these illegal attachment orders, but the fight is apparently not yet over.

Mark Solms and Richard Astor are co-owners of the Solms-Delta estate in the Franschoek Valley. Through the Wijn de Caab Trust, established to benefit the historically-disadvantaged residents and employees of the farm, the Solms-Delta estate has transformed the farm’s housing, education and health care facility, the general quality of life, and has fundamentally empowered the farm community. The 180 people living on the farm are now all shareholders in the wine-making business, and benefit from their work, the wine business and the many other income-generating activities that the farm offers. As a result, Solms Delta is recognised as one of South Africa’s most progressive wine estates, a far cry from its once oppressive, slavery-based structure.

For this, the wine farm owners receive an Inyathelo Philanthropy Award for the innovation shown in tackling entrenched impoverishment in wine farming in the Western Cape, and ensuring that workers were able to gain a sense of ownership of the land. To watch a short film about Solms-Delta, go to www.inyathelo.org.za/philanthropy-awardees/item/mark-solms-and-richard-astor.html.

A dash of philanthropy with your glass of wine, then?  Of course! Award-winning wines are best accompanied by award-winning philanthropy.

-      Gabrielle Ritchie is a director at The Change Room.

Photo Courtesy: timeslive

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