A comment was recently placed under my August 2016 article on Solms-Delta’s groundbreaking agreement with the national government. The farm’s workers were to take 45% of the business (including brand and land), funded by the government’s National Empowerment Fund, with the NEF itself taking 5%. I commented that “For many years now, Solms-Delta has represented by far the most radical gesture towards transformation in an industry which has changed little in structure since the coming of formal democracy to the country in 1994.”
The recent comment came from Christopher Rawbone-Viljoen, son of the owner of Oak Valley, the very substantial agri-business in Elgin, which includes a small wine-growing component. It’s worth dealing with it here, as it raises a significant matter (it also makes an extraordinary attack on me, which I’ll deal with secondly).
Firstly, there’s a comparison between what Christopher regards as the failure of the Solms-Delta project and his own business’s success. He says:
“It seems your poster child for transformation has gone belly up and wasted 65m of taxpayers money in the process with more to come. To the contrary, we have implemented 4x highly successful BEE fruit projects with another 3 in the pipeline.”
It turns out that this rather distastefully exultant bit of triumphalism is in response to a recent Sunday Times article, luridly entitled ‘Land reform’s poster child goes sour as debts mount’. The article was motivated by Solms-Delta being placed under business rescue – which is, I understand, a high-level legal mechanism to prevent any liquidator attack on a business which persuades a court that it has a good chance of recovery.
So, “gone belly up” is somewhat excessive on Christopher’s part. As Mark Solms has said, “The court would not have granted [business rescue], unless they were satisfied we had a viable turnaround strategy.” Furthermore, the R65 million rand is not exactly “wasted”, as it is lodged in title to a valuable bit of land, quite apart from in a business which will hopefully become profitable.
I can’t go into the whole matter here (which is complex and largely outside my sphere of understanding), but it seems that the Sunday Times journalist was on something of a bashing mission and largely ignored statements by the farm and, importantly, by the government, about supportive operational money due to come to Solms Delta under the original deal. (The article doesn’t seem to be easily available for all online.) A rather more objective piece about the business rescue move, by Farmers Weekly, can be found online here.
Most of us who have welcomed the extraordinary social experiment at Solms Delta, and know something about the transformation of workers’ lives there will be hoping that the “turnaround strategy” will be successful. Although undoubtedly there are very many in the farming and general business sector which would like to see this sort of radical land-transfer project fail – Christopher R-V perhaps among them. But he should pay a visit and try to learn that not only his own ideas have value, and that he too should hope for the full success of this deal between Solms-Delta and the government, ultimately giving actual land and ownership – and a measure of real social satisfaction – to the workers. Perhaps he might at least pick up a few good ideas.
Meanwhile, I’m delighted to hear that Oak Valley is implementing so many projects aimed, however belatedly, at redressing some of the ills in its industry, and I wish them well too.
The second part of Christopher R-V’s comment is an attack on me:
“Perhaps, if you’d bothered to ask before penning your highly offensive personal attack against me in Feb 2013, we could have discussed the merits of these projects and our views on how to implement sustainable transformation. It begs the question, what have you done for transformation besides making a lot of noise and supporting failures that drain our national fiscus?”
This is strange, as there is no actual connection between what he’s referring to and the matter at hand, outside Christopher’s resentful imagination. I had thought that our little dispute was long resolved (February 2013!) and forgotten – certainly it was by me; but it clearly festers in his mind.
It arose out of an Oak Valley newsletter that Christopher wrote in early 2013, concerned with the farmworker strikes in the Elgin/Grabouw area, in which he put forward what he calls a “farmer’s perspective”. His newsletter is available here, my response here (if anyone can be bothered to look).
The newsletter made me very angry, and I responded in anger. But “a highly offensive personal attack” on him (in a subsequent email he also claimed it as a personal attack on his family too!)? Not at all, it was a political attack on his provocative statements, which I had regarded as an attack on the striking workers. And I indicated the social context of the author’s highly privileged position – perhaps that’s what he particularly objects to, though it was a description which I regard as undeniable.
Incidentally, I went out of my way to state specifically that “by all accepted standards, Oak Valley is an exemplary employer” with “comparatively well-paid workers”.
Why should I not have replied as “offensively” as he had written? Why was that “completely out of line” as he now claims? I stand by the critique I made, and by my right to publish it.
And what does Christopher mean by sneering at “what I have done for transformation”? (Incidentally, “he means “raise the question”, not “beg the question”, which is an entirely different thing.) I have no wish to discuss my political life with him, or make claims for it, but in the terms in which his limited mind moves, I am neither a rich capitalist farmer nor a philanthropist, so what does he expect me to do except occasionally write about schemes in the wine industry that appeal to me? (God knows, there are few enough of them.) If he’d invited me to observe what Oak Valley has done, I would have been pleased to learn about it; but he didn’t.