· Roddy Bray's Story-Letters from Southern Africa
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| 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
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
solemnity. 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
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.
Nelson'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).
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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