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The Long Walk to Empowerment

In the past decade, South Africa has come a long way. On the surface, however, it appears that things have not changed that much and nowhere is this better seen than in the white-run Cape wine-industry.

Some winery owners have taken the first steps in uplifting their workers. Various projects, like SAVISA's Mountain View Communal Property Association, Backsberg's Fair Valley Workers Association and Alan Nelson from Nelson Wine Estate's New Beginnings, to name but a few, has seen the light in an effort to empower the farm workers.

Thanks to a combination of government grants, the vision of liberal winery owners and the hard work of the workers themselves, wines like Winds of Change and Freedom Road, started appearing on the shelves of British supermarkets and wine importers in the past year. These wines are the products of these projects and their labels inform the public that this wine is for drinkers who care about the ethics, as much as the terroir behind the wine they drink.

One of the most asked questions about these types of projects is if empowerment projects do not simply replace exploitation with paternalism?

This is a fair enough question, but, if you take into account the low literacy levels and the lack of basic business skills of the farm workers, you will realize a guiding hand of some form is essential. 'There has to be a degree of paternalism to act as a stepping stone from the past to the future', argues Anthony Hamilton-Russell, pointing out that without assistance all these projects would not stand up to the harsh realities of international trade.

The ultimate aim is that winery owners will stand back and let the projects continue as a totally independent company. As Paul Cluver says, 'Thandi is about developing skills so that one day they can do the job themselves - it should never be about creating figureheads.'

When asked about the moral and ethical motivations behind their involvement with the Winds of Change label, SAVISA's managing director, Bernard Fontannaz. echoed Cluver's sentiments. 'It is not about creating a socially correct product. This is not a charity - charity is short-term. This is a business proposition with a social dimension,' he says.

SAVISA, one of South Africa's largest exporters of South African wine, got involved in the upliftment of farm workers three years ago when they started the Mountain View Communal Property Association. Their aim was to address the social needs of nine families living and working on the Sonop wine farm. With the aid of an interest free loan from SAVISA and some grants, the community now own 12 hectares (ha) of land, as well as the houses on it. In addition, ?1 from every case of their wine, Winds of Change will go directly back into the community and will be going towards adult literacy, planting a community vegetable garden and building a pre-school and day-care centre.

Similar projects include Tukulu, New Beginnings, Freedom Road, Thandi and the Fair Valley Workers Association.

Tukulu is a joint venture between SFW, Leopont Properties and the Maluti Groenekloof Trust. Carmen Stevent, the young winemaker from Tukulu, has released her first Chenin Blanc 1999 from the farm in Papkuilsfontein near Darling, using twenty percent of the farm's grapes for the Tukulu label.

New Beginnings was initiated by Alan Nelson, who donated nine hectares to the 16 families on his farm, Nelson Wine Estate, in Paarl. They have succeeded in raising enough money through sales of New Beginnings in South Africa to buy another nine hectares

Freedom Road is a short-term project by Michael Back of Backsberg to help his permanent workers acquire their own homes. He donated the land and bridging finance and the workers also received government grants to help them. Although the wine is made at Backsberg, Freedom Road is run entirely by the farm workers who buy their own bottles, corks and packaging material. Their first release, Sauvignon Blanc 1999, was sold to the UK (Tesco), Holland and the US.

Thandi was established in 1994 as a profit-sharing venture involving Paul Cluver's estate, the SA Forestry Commission and farm workers in the Lebanon Village. They have acquired 12ha so far and their future plans include another 70ha as well as a new winery and possibly even a Thandi Cape Malay Food Range

The Fair Valley Workers Association was established in 1997. They purchased land through grants and money donated by Fairview. Their immediate plans include the building of a new independent cellar and the first new workers' homes.

You could argue that these empowerment projects are being used as a marketing tool to boost the sales of wines. If those sales benefit the workers directly, however, it is understandable that the story behind the wine should be on the label to sensitize the consumers to the issue.

The whole issue about the marketing potential of the wines from empowerment schemes is not really relevant. Ultimately, all these wines will be judged on the quality and value for money inside the bottle, because this is the only thing that will make a drinker come back for a second try. Regardless of the story behind the label, the long-term feasibility and success of the wine depends on its ability to compete in an increasingly competitive market. They will, as all other new products, have one chance only to capture the wine drinking market

There are so many things we simply take for granted, things like hope, confidence, pride and self-esteem, but these new opportunities bring exactly that to the farm workers of the Cape winelands. You only have to look at the smiling faces of the two brothers on the New Beginnings label to realize this.