Land Rights

19th-20th January 2019

Meerlust, Backsberg and Cathy van Zyl MW.

One of the key issues in South Africa currently is the discussion about land rights and redistribution.  This is much wider than just the wine industry, but essentially it’s a response to the fact that although the black population is now the largest group with political power they still lag economically.  One way to redress the balance is to give them more land – land, after all, is a key source of capital which can provide a long-term basis for economic activity and growth.  The trouble is, where does the land come from?  The very evident target is the white population who own the best sites, whether urban-residential, industrial or agricultural.  It’s also true that when politicians get into trouble with their support base then stirring up and being sympathetic to popular demands for capital (and implicitly or explicitly expropriation from the rich former oppressors) can offer electoral rewards.  This is what Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe, and what Jacob Zuma (especially given the constant accusations of corruption he has faced and under pressure from a more radical black opposition, the Economic Freedom Fighters), has been toying with.  The fact that corrupt politicians may be using it for venal ends doesn’t mean it isn’t important.  If you travel through the vineyard regions it’s clear that most agricultural land is held by the 8% of the population who are white, and such an imbalance can neither be fair to the majority nor good for the stability and development of the country.  (The exact division of land ownership is contested, but over half is owned by the whites; up to a quarter by the government).

So there is a growing hubbub around the possibility of land redistribution.  How will this pan out for the wine industry?  Impossible to say – but it’s fascinating to see how people respond to the threat; especially as there is no common response.

Chris Williams at Meerlust suggests that the government actually owns 70% of all land in the country – but most is non-productive at present, and he implies this is where empowerment could begin.  Land ownership will be a bumpy ride but he thinks there is little chance of wineries in the area being expropriated as the previous indigenous population (the Khoi) were nomadic and had no relationship to specific sites now occupied there.  Most land that has been taken from the black majority is in the north of the country where there was substantial land expropriation by the white population in 1913 plus other land taken in the 1960s (e.g. district six – a large suburb of Cape Town) which they could reclaim.  It is farming land in the north that is most at risk.  Others, however, don’t agree with this suggestion.

Some consider that their reputation and long-term engagement with the local majority community should protect them.  One of my former students suggests that on land rights the ‘liberal’ Backs family are saying ‘oh, it’ll be ok’.  And the wine industry is seen as a ‘white industry’.  Backsberg produced ‘Freedom Road’ wines via Tesco in the 1990s.  All the proceeds went towards allowing the workers to buy the title deeds to their property.  They’ve also paid the equivalent of 150 years of education for people in their local community.  They put through school the person who is now the current financial manager at the winery.  The Afrikaner farmers, however, whose history is interlinked with the oppressive National government of the apartheid era, are more worried. 

Some of those Afrikaner wine farms are working hard to stave off accusations that they ignore the local black and coloured communities.  My friend Cathy van Zyl MW tells me about one well-known producer who – following the Wines of South Africa commitment to environmental diversity – have pulled out lots of invasive species on their estate and replaced with local flora.  We wouldn’t want to doubt their genuine environmental commitment but they also hope, perhaps, that this work for the local community might head off any threat of expropriation.

A more nuanced approach still (though perhaps one which would also embed white economic power) suggests that expropriating vineyards just won’t work.  First, many blacks go to mining, engineering, and finance as the most traditional routes to wealth; these also tend to be city-based jobs.  Wine is more difficult. Agriculture generally is not so popular, so there is less black contact with the land, other than as unskilled wage labourers.  Wine specifically has a long lead in time if you want to start a new vineyard – seven or eight years before full production, but with the vineyards needing management throughout the whole period.  And viticultural management and winemaking are skilled jobs; if land is just handed over what guarantee exists that it will be managed by competent people?  And that they will be able to make good wine?  So maybe that too will protect the wine farms.

One other thing might work against the wine producers.  The Western Cape where almost all of the South African vineyards are situated, is the one South African province which is not governed by the ANC.  As a result, the national government has reduced subsidies, and done other things to make its operations difficult.  They aren’t necessarily going to have so much sympathy for white landowners who support their enemy, even if expropriation isn’t so economically rational; this may not change even with the more sensible approach to government expected of the new President, Cyril Ramaphosa.

As will be clear from what I’ve written, I think that, as a principle, permanent redistribution of capital assets is essential for equity and for the welfare of the country.  And the white population took the land from the indigenous population in the first place. However, the practicalities are difficult.  If it’s going to come, how do you justify expropriating northern white farmers but leaving untouched the wine producers near to Cape Town, however liberal they have been?  And how do you expropriate, and maintain economic viability?  But even more, how do you justify taking some (maybe most) of the land of people who have a long-term connection to the place they farm.  Meerlust has been family owned for 250 years.  This is not just land as an economic resource, it is land as family heritage, a place that the owners have come to identify as their own over a long period and to which they feel rooted.  Maybe you can justify taking 20% away and handing it to a trust for the local black community to work.  Maybe co-ownership of the business with such a trust owning shares (and buying more in the future) could work – although that doesn’t have the dog whistle symbolic effect of an instant expropriation?  But uprooting a family seems inequitable just as the blacks and coloureds (the recognised term for non-white people who do not belong to the indigenous African communities or who are mixed race) were treated inequitably for so long.

As I leave Meerlust I see, by the side of the drive, the family cemetery.  It’s surrounded by a whitewashed wall on land cut out from a vineyard; historically, family members have chosen to be buried here, on land they carved out for themselves, turned into a means of making a living and also made into their home.  This is where they chose to remain after death, and it would seem harsh to destroy that identification with their place now.