One of the more remarkable moments thus far in the extremely sluggish transformation (in racial terms) of the Cape wine industry has just taken place. There’s been a groundbreaking agreement between the Solms-Delta estate in Franschhoek and the national government: the farm’s workers now take 45% of the business (including brand and land), funded by the government’s National Empowerment Fund, with the NEF itself taking 5%. This entitles the NEF a place on the Board, along with two representatives of the workers, plus Mark Solms and Richard Astor (the two original owners who long ago essentially handed over a third of the business to the farmworkers), and the farm manager.
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. We have seen not only the establishment of a worker’s trust owning a third of the business in the new regime at the estate, but, just as important, the building of a culture of human dignity through the recognition and celebration of Cape culture, through museums, festivals and historical research. Specifically, the place in Cape winemaking history of the slaves and workers whose vital contributions have been largely ignored by the industry, have been foregrounded.
The vexed question of land-ownership has always, though, been recognised as a central one – and it is this aspect which has been so little addressed in most “empowerment” gestures in a sadly complacent wine industry.
Giving up of a third of their property was a radical gesture by Mark Solms and the British philanthropist Richard Astor – I suspect it hasn’t made them popular with some of the landowning class in the Western Cape; there’s no question that a few representatives of entrenched have been looking forward to the failure of this experiment in social justice.
Now, with the involvement of the state, there’s a far more solid basis for building on the experiment. Negotiations between Solms-Delta and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform had been continuing for a long time before the final recent agreement. The transaction makes the business, according to an official statement, “a prototype of the department’s ‘50/50’ programme (‘Strengthening the Relative Rights of Workers’ programme)”. It involved a R65m transaction.
I confess that, as always when it comes to large sums of money, my head has spun trying to understand the details – I did come out of the spin, however, with a clear understanding that the money underwrites the workers’ ownership, clears the estate’s debts and establishes a firm financial basis for its development through recapitalisation. (In fact, Mark Solms says, the business is already “within a hair’s breadth of profitability, with local sales and exports going well”.) Solms and Astor themselves have further reduced their ownership of land and equity, and not benefited financially from the deal.
Mark Solms – apart from being relieved that the negotiations, which had used up so much of the time and energy that is in short supply for a man with an international career (or careers) as neuroscientist, academic and psychoanalist, are finally over – is very satisfied. “We never set out to be a model”, he told me the other night from a waiting room at OR Tambo Airport (he was on his way to London), “but this is an endorsement by the government of what we’ve done”. He hopes that perhaps Solms-Delta, especially through its new relationship with the state, has pioneered something that might work on a much larger scale.
The statement by the new Board says, in measured tones, in this regard: “This transaction spearheads the DRDLR’s commitment to partnerships between farmers and workers, a concept first proposed by Minister Nkwinti in April 2014. Solms-Delta is the first in a large number of similar transactions.”
Mark Solms knows, however, that transformation within the wine industry “is a huge problem and I don’t believe we’ve cracked it.”
He’s characteritically full of energy and hope, notwithstanding, and spoke of a major new project between Solms-Delta and the Department that he thinks is looking likely. As I understand it, the project involves the building of an African Vintners Alliance, with a large production facility to be established on the Franschhoek estate. The aim of the Alliance would be to facilitate the building of a genuinely significant black-owned component of the Cape wine industry, beyond mere brand-ownership.
The industry, and the world perhaps, will observe with (let’s hope) interest.