MARK SOLMS AND WINE-FARMING
Bernard Franz - Mar 5th, 20:07
Sense of the land
Mark, did anyone strike on your farm during the latest protests?
No, in our setup the farm workers would be striking against themselves. The farm workers, another farmer next door and I created a partnership called Solms-Delta where we each have one third of the shares. So our farm workers are also farm owners. The principle is that if you are on the same side then there is nothing to fight about.
What about the strikes turning violent in Marikana or in the Winelands?
Those people have the feeling that they’ve got nothing to lose. What is increasingly worrying is that people say, “At this point I don’t care, now I’m going to throw away the little I’ve got.” This leads to self-destructive mob situations. The opposite approach is obviously so much better: the economy has to be owned by all of us. That is the principle we work with on our little farm, and one that is also applicable across other sectors of the economy and in our country.
Some of the very rich so-called “Winelands billionaire” farmers give their workers higher salaries, a bonus at the end of the year, two free chickens per week for consumption, free transportation in case of medical emergencies, free accommodation, and ownership of a small plot of land where workers can grow crops for additional income. Obviously not every farmer can afford these measures, but for those who have the means, is this a way forward to a broader solution?
Charity is better than nothing. I’m sure that it comes from good intentions. But it’s also possible for it to be designed to prevent a solution, designed to keep things the same. The largesse to give a fraction of what you’ve got doesn’t change anything. People don’t want to be only the beneficiaries of charities. What we have to do is something more fundamental, something more structural. We need redistribution of assets and of land. In our industry there has to be land reform. The situation is very dangerous. You only have to look at Zimbabwe to see where it ends. If we don’t take the matter into our hands, and find proactive and sincere solutions, eventually destruction and primitive emotions will win, and we will all be the poorer for it.
You work in London and New York as a neuropsychoanalyst and hold a chair in neuropsychology at UCT and Groote Schuur Hospital. You left South Africa as a young man during apartheid times, and took over your family’s farm in the Franschhoek valley in 2001. Does it help to be able to see South Africa from different perspectives?
When you are in South Africa you get caught up in all the emotions. It is very difficult to stay clear of the emotions, to see the patterns; I think it helped me a lot to distance myself from South Africa for that length of time, not to be so buffeted by all the emotions. In my profession as a clinician I am faced with crisis all the time. I have to learn to be analytical, separate my emotions from my thinking, even when I am under fire, even when I am anxious. I have to ask questions such as what are the symptoms, and what is the mechanism behind them? What does this all mean?
When you took over your farm, you first decided to stop production for three months and call in archaeologists and oral historians from UCT to unravel its history. Why did you do that?
What I originally saw on the surface was a very difficult situation. I tried to engage with the farm workers in discussing how we can make this a different sort of farm. How can we make this a farm that will be in tune with the vision of a transformed South Africa? Instead the workers were scared of me, they didn’t trust me, they felt ignorant and ashamed. They didn’t even look into my eyes. I felt very daunted by this situation.
Clinically speaking, would you call the way that the farm workers first reacted to you as them being traumatised?
Definitely, I agree with that, but I don’t think that the farm workers are the patient and I am the doctor. The farm owner is a central part of the problem. We are all the patient.
How important is history in the context of your farm, yet also in the context of your work as a psychonanalyst?
If anyone is to analyse an impossibly complicated, knotted moral problem, it is vital to look at the underlying structure. Once you take a cross section, once you see how it all arose, once you get to the origins, to the underlying principles, then it all gets much clearer. It’s about taking the history. You have to get to the history, it is absolutely standard clinical practice. Just by seeing the underlying structure you have already simplified it.
What exactly happened once you began to work with the experts from the university?
They recorded the process. We did this together in my house. We didn’t compel anyone to take part but many people on the farm joined us. We started with our own life histories and we told each other how apartheid had affected us. This is something that you can read up in a textbook, but you need to do it personally and concretely, experience it and talk with each other about it.
I can’t begin to tell you the impact that it had on me. To hear about the grinding poverty of people living on the farm. One after another after another telling the same stories. How they had no shoes, how excited they were when they got their first shoes. How in winter they kept their feet warm by putting them into cow shit, because that was warm. How they had to stop going to school, because with all the hard work on the farm the parents got sick, and in order to keep the house the children had to work for the farmer. And over and over again you hear: “I had to give up school when I was 9, I had to give up school when I was 11.” Over and over again the same stories.
No one, unless you are a monster, can be unaffected by hearing this.
And then also me as a white person telling my story, that of the privileged life I had under apartheid with my little problems that I thought were important.
How did the farm workers react to the process of someone taking their life histories?
They were quite impressed that white people from the university wanted to hear their life stories, that they wanted to record them. The people from the farms are normally very marginalised people, they are not considered important by anyone. Nobody wants to talk to them. For them it was important to have someone record their struggles and to ask them questions about their experiences.
What are some of the discoveries you made about the farm’s history?
First of all that there are people on the farm who are descendants of the San and Khoikhoi. They had a hunter-gatherer economy, and they were pastoralists. The land was there for everyone to use. And then suddenly one year, in 1690 in the case of our valley, they find that this land belongs to these white okes, who say sorry this is my farm. Can you imagine, they had no idea what it meant that this land belongs to them? The concept of land ownership destroyed the economies of the indigenous populations, which in turn caused mutual incomprehension, migration, death. When there weren’t enough people to work the land, our ancestors brought in slaves from the East. When my farm was established in 1690 there were already more slaves in the Cape than settlers. The people living on the farm today are either there because their ancestors’ land was taken away from them, or because their ancestors were taken away against their will from their homes to work for our ancestors. What does that do to the soul of those people? It’s dangerous. Someone was hurt, and these things have still not come right.
How does this reflect on the labour situation?
The bottom line is that this is not a normal labour situation. The people who now work on the farm never had a chance to seek work in a normal situation such as: I am willing to sell my labour to you, if you tell me what you are willing to pay me. The people are there anyway. They are there because of our history. That has nothing to do with choice. You own the land, and they have to work for you. They have no other skills. They have no other home. You have to employ them, otherwise you’ve got a problem, because you’ve got those people living on your farm whether you employ them or not. This is a very sick situation. It is a history of the dispossession of the local people and the dislocation of the slaves, and we are still living with the consequences today.
Did the archaeologists and oral historians make any recommendations?
They educated us, yes. For example, I didn’t realise that it is considered shameful for many South African farm workers to be descended from slaves, or that it is even shameful for them to be descendants of the San. The experts from the university explained what it really means to be descended from slaves or Bushmen. They showed them that their ancestors had been here for thousands and thousands of years, they took them to see evidence of their ancestors’ skills such as stone tools or paintings in the mountains. The archaeologists consistently asked them to dig with them. It was an incredible process of discovery and it brought up all sorts of facts, such as thousands of stone tools. This discovery creates a new context, one in which a farm worker can stand in front of me with a 7000-year-old stone tool which he found 40m away from my stoep, look me in the eye and declare: “My people were here before yours.”
Doesn’t this powerful statement also question your land ownership? Many so-called Truth and Reconciliation events around the world prove time and again that it is one thing to bring out the truth, but quite another to find a way to compensate for injustice. Once you assessed the situation, what came next?
What I recognised is that it’s not right how we got the land, but also that I don’t want to give the farm back. I am a sixth generation landowner, and my children are the seventh generation. When I spoke to the farm workers about this, it was not hard for them to understand. Nobody expects you to not act in your own self-interest. Nobody is a saint.
Eventually I didn’t give my farm back. In fact I didn’t give anything away. All that I did was take a risk, or actually not even that. I only acknowledged a risk, the risk that we are not living in a sustainable situation because this situation is built on a past that causes suffering. And that we need to do something that is more fair. This applies not only to one farm, but to the whole country.
People avoid these conversations because they are scared, and guilty, and because these emotions get in the way, but if you face the emotions then you can see the solutions. In my case we came to a very simple one: we went to the bank and we asked it to take the value of my farm and that of another farmer next door as security, so that the farm workers could buy a farm next to ours. In that way it now is my responsibility to make sure that their farm succeeds, because if it doesn’t then my farm is on the line as well. This way we created a realistic basis to share skills and operations.
How do other farmers in the valley react to your initiative? Surely not every farmer can afford to take the steps you took.
We are fortunate in that our initiatives attract the right kind of people. In the past few years many farmers have come and visited us and they have seen how our system works. Farmers are very practical people, as in the saying ’n boer maak ’n plan. They make a plan. I hope that this attitude will prevail.
At the same time I don’t believe our way is the only way. More important is the attitude to acknowledge the problem. We have to admit that our history has left us with these inequities. So let’s sit down and look at this.
Things that we wished away, have not gone away. Things that we thought we could miracle away in 1994 are still with us. At first when the strikes started some farmers became more defensive, and some workers became more aggressive. Now there is a little bit of tension. But we are very optimistic that we get this back on track once the strikes are over.
Is there any support system available for those farmers who are interested in your concept? What is the government doing, both nationally, provincially and locally?
We launched the Franschhoek Transformation Charter last year. Desmond Tutu came to us and we had a huge turnout of a very diverse group of people of English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa backgrounds at the local Dutch Reformed Church. We had meetings with WOSA (Wines of South Africa), WIETA (Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association), with the provincial minister of economic development, Alan Winde, and with others in the industry. We see that there is a willingness to find ways to tackle this on a bigger scale.
You yourself once said that South African wine was kak, because the history of South African wine is kak.
The attitude of the farm workers always has an effect on the product. It matters how much they care, it matters if they hate the person they work for. To make wine both in the field and in the cellar is labour-intensive, slow, difficult and backbreaking work, month after month, and there are a million ways to sabotage wine. In the end, attitude and emotions will have an effect on the flavour and the quality of the wine. It’s a bit like having a very good recipe. It still matters how a person prepares it.
The long history of South African wine hasn’t actually been a very successful one. The current success really has to do with what happened in the early 1990s when international perception shifted towards the country, and its wine. This history has not yet come to an end.
In South Africa we are still finding our terroir, this concept which the French use to indicate a sense of place. To me the central feature of the South African terroir is its labour relationships. If we improve this, it can make a world of difference to the quality of South African wine.
You have been hosting the Oesfees, a harvest festival, for the past seven years. How many people attend the festival?
If we count the number of paying visitors we see that the festival has risen considerably, to 5500 last year. This year we are planning to have 7000 people. This shows that there is a great demand for this kind of festival. Apart from paying visitors, farm workers from our three combined farms have free access. We also give 12 tickets each to the 46 farms in the Franschhoek valley.
That’s quite a different approach from many other harvest and street festivals across the country, that charge a fee to locals and visitors alike, which in many cases excludes poorer locals from attending these festivals, or to even be barred access to public spaces.
The tragedy of this is multiplied by the fact that many organisers don’t even realise that this is a problem. And imagine the consequences this has for the people of the town, or to the terroir for that matter, to have the majority of the people excluded from a joyful event that celebrates their industry, their farm, or their town.
The original recipe of wine harvest festivals in the Mediterranean also included the loud arrival of the wine god Dionysus who brought with him wine, music and ecstatic dance. How much of this wilder, more provocative spirit of the harvest festival do you see come alive in the Oesfees?
There was indeed a fear of these boisterous elements when we first started out, and I think it again has to do with our history. South Africa had none of the spontaneous celebrations, none of that joyful, defiant, exuberant, even destructive elements in its harvest season, that was part of all European winegrowing cultures. Most of us in South Africa would want the idea of a rainbow nation to work, but we just don’t always know how to do it. Surprisingly enough, the kind of revelry we see at the Oesfees today is completely harmless. There is no unpleasantness. The purpose of the Oesfees is to give a heartfelt, genuine thank you to the workers for the harvest and the season, and it is also a celebration of the farm worker’s culture, their music and their dances.