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New Beginnings

Nelson Buthulezi is tall, upright, broad shouldered and dark skinned: the classic frame of a Zulu man; the pride of his nation distilled in his taciturn manner and the long look in his eyes, only slightly offset by the manners of youth: a diamond earring, well-worn jeans and a quick smile. He recently told his story to a group I was guiding from Duke University.

His grandfather was a preacher in Zululand. Life was strict - and in his boyhood Nelson tasted nothing stronger than the grape juice served on Sundays. He grew up among farm labourers and by his late teens he was tired of sugar cane, pineapples and Cape Wine Cellarsolemnity. He left, and somehow, unusually for a Zulu, found himself in Cape Town where he was fortunate to find work as a shop assistant on the Spier wine estate. 'Soon', he said with a smile 'I was tasting something stronger than grape juice'. He acquired the enthusiasm of a convert, extolling the subtleties of vineyards and varietals.

At this time, a wine farm was sold a few miles north of Spier, in the Paarl district, a majestic estate at the foot of the towering du Toit's Kloof mountains. The international investors put up new buildings and sought a new image. Over glasses of their newly acquired wine they decided on an African theme - the old French name of Languedoc became 'Ashanti' and the wines branded with African names like 'Chiwara'.

One day, two of the directors were in the Spier wine shop and heard the young, dignified Nelson Buthulezi extolling the qualities of a wine. They took him aside and discreetly asked if he would like to become a wine-maker… and so began a journey for Nelson that has taken him through Stellenbosch university as a part-time student, whilst working as an assistant to the Winemaker at Ashanti. In 2003 he succeeded his mentor as Winemaker and is now supported by a consultant as he finishes his studies.

The Cape Winelands have always been associated with Afrikaaners: estates became known for the famous sportsmen and business leaders who owned them, like Jannie Englebrecht and Anton Rupert, and winemakers like Beyers Truter. The Nederburg Wine Auction became the 'who's who' of white society and a fashion parade for elegant women. The glossy image belied the realities of the estates: behind the whitewashed, gabled buildings, avenues of oaks and olive trees and neat parades of vines, many workers lived in poverty and dependence, some only paid in regular doses of alcohol (the notorious 'dop' system).

But, like every exclusive bastion of the white tribe of Africa, the wine industry is changing too, and often because of the leadership of enlightened farm owners who want to see change. I often take guests to Nelson's Creek, where Alan Nelson famously gave a significant portion of his land, and use of cellar facilities, to his workers. They now produce 'New Beginnings', a tremendously successful international brand.

Empowerment Wines in South AfricaNelson's Creek pioneered radical empowerment, but others soon followed. Sonop estate gave land for the 'Winds of Change' project, launched in 1999 to fund social and economic black empowerment in the South African Wine industry. More than a million bottles have been sold, mainly in the UK, generating in excess of R650 000 for development projects in the worker's community (over $100,000).

Freedom Road wine label Paul Cluver estate, working in partnership with government, created a 200ha farm on former forestry land in 1996. With Cluver's help, the local community began to produce apples, pears and plums on the land and then created 'Thandi' (Xhosa for 'nurturing love') a wine brand that is selling well both locally and internationally. Their vision statement is "with love grow together". A similar project is 'Freedom Road', supported by the Backsberg estate. Other farmers have donated use of their facilities to worker-owned wine co-operatives, such as Fair Valley and Tukulu. Some farmers have given their workers share options.

These projects have provided enhanced incomes and dignity for workers and their communities. They have forged new and more constructive realtionships between managers and workers. Other programmes are investing in future black winemakers and estate owners. Thabani Wines, owned by connoisseur, Jabulani Ntshangase, has committed funds to the education of winemakers - leading to a four-fold increase in the number of black BSc viticulture / oenology graduates in South Africa. As Nelson Buthulezi told us 'there are few black winemakers now, but there are several more studying; I hope we will bring a fresh approach and new ideas to the industry'. Nelson is just one of a new generation of black people that are entering the 'white' bastion of the wine industry and bringing fresh ideas and creating new beneficiaries.

 


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