For very many months, a vociferous battle – legal, personal, emotional – has been fought against the onset of sand-mining on the Paardeberg in the Swartland – a destructive, anti-agricultural activity which threatens a blight on one of the Cape’s most exciting wine areas.
Today it looks like the battle might be effectively over, with the Swartland Municipality (based in the town of Malmesbury) effectively trashing the wine-farms that have brought international honour to the region – in favour of short-term benefits to landowners (remember the folktales about how much farmers love their land?) who think they’ll do better out of destroying the basis of agriculture on their land.
The story and the issues and the history of the struggle are complex, and I can’t claim to comprehend the details. But some months ago, as I understand it, the Swartland municipality licensed one sand-mining operation; earlier this month, after much contestation, it finally granted licences to two more operators. One is in the Aprilskloof (affecting the immediate environment of wineries including Sadie Family Wines and Lammershoek), and one in the Siebritskloof (where Badenhorst Family Wines and David and Nadia Wines are based). The precedent is set; there’s little prospect of further permissions not being given. It’s going to mean not just scars on the landscape, but a roaring flow of trucks on the sand roads leading into these kloofs – roads which are already suffering, and certainly not designed for this.
Wine tourists? Seems like the municipality doesn’t much care about them either.
Eben Sadie – in the middle of probably his heaviest week of the 2017 harvest – phoned me this afternoon to give me this news that he’d just received. He sounded devastated. With others, he has fought hard to preserve the agricultural character of the Paardeberg. A lot of money has been spent on lawyers, a lot of time and energy in trying to get action against the threat of sandmining from national, provincial and local authorities. It seems that the municipal power is the crucial element in the equation.
How the municipal planners came to their conclusions is unclear. The arguments of the objectors are overridden with mentions of profitability and claims that “the possible detrimental impacts” (possible?) of sand mining have been addressed. A crucial sentence in the municipality’s statement has it that “the need for construction material for housing and infrastructure development as well as resulting economic growth is recognize[d] as equally important as the conservation of agricultural land”. Well, yes – as a general statement, but it is not a principle that can possibly cover all situations where losses and benefits are to be weighed. It’s merely the eternal excuse for shortsighted despoliation of our world.
The interests of the winefarmers of the Paardeberg, and of its agricultural heritage, need to be balanced against the interests of those who want to profitably mine sand from the area. Fair enough. But have those bland municipal officers (of course none of them with a stake in it!) understood the international significance of this sprawling granitic mountain, of these kloofs?
The Paardeberg provided the nucleus for the reinvention of the Swartland over the past few decades. The Swartland wine renaissance has spread to other magic mountains and hills – Kasteelberg, Porseleinberg the best known – but the Paardeberg remains vital. The Swartland and Stellenbosch are perhaps the two South African areas whose names will be most recognised by international winelovers – then probably the two mountains those winelovers will have heard of are the Helderberg and the Paardeberg.
One of those famous mountains is now going to be ripped up and disfigured. For sand (not even first quality sand, I believe). That’s admittedly an extreme way of putting it – it’s not a wholesale swathe of destruction that will happen; this is not the Swartland apocalypse. But it’s a threat to the integrity of one of the Cape’s foremost winelands, and it does matter.