Transformative Trailblazers

An innovative land reform deal on the wine farm Solms Delta near Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands, represents a model for how owners and workers can co-own their production (sweat equity) and can co-exist on the land they are all tied to – inextricably. 

Mark Solms, who is a neuroscientist and psychoanalyst, as well as being the owner of Solms-Delta, established the Wijn de Caab Trust in 2005 to benefit the 200 historically disadvantaged employees on his wine estate.

Solms and his neighbour, Richard Astor, both put their farms up as collateral so that a third adjoining farm could be purchased by the workers, giving the Wijn de Caab Trust a 33% equity stake in Solms-Delta. The staff ownership structure has been held up by many, including the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, as an example for transformation in the agricultural sector.

This model offers a structural shift in South Africa’s land reform journey. The process on the Franschhoek farm was never intended as a model for the wine industry, or the broader agricultural sector, Solms said. However, some of the lessons learnt during the process could be useful as general principles, he conceded.

The first of these is that South Africans have to face historical facts, as we are now living with the consequences of the past. This was the initial step in attempting to correct the past. “Blind rage is not a solution. Neither is doing nothing. Facing the facts gives you your mind back. It enables you to start to find solutions,” Solms said. 

The second principle was to recognise that the current situation, where 98% of the land in the South African wine industry still belongs to whites, is untenable. But Solms acknowledged that while the ethical solution is to give the land back, “humans essentially have selfish motives and want to keep their ill-gotten gains. We underestimated the psychological implications of this fraught topic,” he said.

This August, another groundbreaking agreement was reached between the Solms-Delta estate and the national government, allowing for the farm’s workers to take 45% of the business, including its brand and land, funded by the National Empowerment Fund (NEF), with the NEF itself taking 5%.

Solms said “the demographics of land ownership in South Africa are a very pressing issue, an indefensible and unsustainable legacy of apartheid which we ignore at our peril. So moving from the 33/33/33% partnership forged in 2005 to the equal-partnership model seemed like a progressive step in the context of the need for the agricultural sector to transform.

The Wine Industry Development Association said the deal was the first of its kind in the wine industry, where farmworkers have progressively bought into a business of this kind. “This is a pioneering project … a step in the right direction, and others should follow suit” 

We salute this trailblazing deal that gives recognition to the backbone of the business – the farmworkers. Particularly at this time when geo politcal divides are shifting and new landscapes are emerging.

Acknowledgment Mail & Guardian: Richard Calland, Achille Mbembe: The age of humanism is ending; and Lisa Isaacs

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