The South African wine industry is notorious for its brutal conditions. To improve workers' lives, Solms-Delta decided it was time to "extend the pie"

The Cape region of South Africa has been producing wine since the 1650s. In recent years the industry, which employs some 300,000 people and contributes R36.1 billion ($2.7 billion) to the economy, has become known for delicious, inexpensive wines. But the story behind those bottles might put you off your Pinotage. Farm workers on local vineyards earn a minimum daily wage of R128 (about $9) for a nine-hour day. They often live in squalid conditions and have limited access to education and healthcare.

Mark Solms, owner of Solms-Delta Wine Estate, says the stark reality of workers’ lives made him rethink his role as land owner. “In South Africa, if you inherit or purchase land, it comes with people,” he explains. “The brutal fact is workers are extremely vulnerable, and you’re practically a feudal lord if you own farmland in South Africa. It’s not sustainable.”

The story of the Cape is a familiar one: White colonizers encroached on ancestral land, pushing out or slaying the local population. Without people left to work the land, slaves were imported from Indonesia, India, Madagascar and East Africa. Slavery was officially abolished in the 1830s, but the formerly enslaved workers had nowhere to go. “Their descendents are still here,” Solms explains. “Ninety-eight percent of the land in South Africa is white owned. The stealers of the land are still the beneficiaries.”

Knowing the history is one thing, but seeing it is another. Solms contacted the University of Cape Town’s departments of Archaeology and History to help him and his workers understand what had occurred. Together they excavated the farm and found a Bushman settlement that dated back some 6,000 years, as well as artifacts that showed the farm had been built by slave labor. Solms says the finds raised important questions: “So, why do you own it? And why do I work for you?”

Solms-Delta farm laborers Linda Radloff, Sarie Petersen, Sanna Malgas and guitarist Elsie Cupido get in the spirit of the harvest festival with a traditional dance. Ian landsberg

Something for Everyone

The end of apartheid in the 1990s was good for South Africa’s wine industry. An explosion of creativity and ideas infiltrated the industry, but that same imagination wasn’t applied to the lives of the people who made the wine. Workers continued living much the way they always had and Solms realized he needed to get resourceful.

Giving the land over to the landless may seem like the obvious solution. But no land owner wants to give up their land. Even if farm workers suddenly became farm owners, they had endured generations of oppression.

“We had no hope and no trust” explains Sanna Malgas, a wine educator on the farm. “Mark asked us if we wanted a better future, but we didn’t know if it would last for a day or a month.”

“In South Africa, if you inherit or purchase land, it comes with people.”

Malgas says it wasn’t until Solms started to invest in the workers—offering schooling and health care—that they grew to believe they might benefit.

Malgas, who started as a domestic worker before training as a wine educator and music coordinator, was born on the farm in 1965. She recalls how she didn’t get her first shoes until age 14 and that employees were required to work outdoors under all conditions, even when they were sick. “I used to hate my work, “ she says “I didn’t want this for my kids.”

Instead, her kids now have access to good schooling and a chance to attend university and the adults on the farm have hope. “Regardless of who you are you can learn a new skill and take on a new challenge,” Malgas explains.

Wine educator Sanna Malgas and Solms-Delta owner Mark Solms embrace during the harvest festival.

Changing the Status Quo

“Wine is a handmade product—it’s backbreaking work,” Solms says. “But the very people making the wine are victims of history,” they need to profit from their hard work. “There’s a choice, wine can be made with resentment, or with care, enthusiasm and hope.”

Rather than give up his land, Solms decided to “extend the pie.” In 2007 he and his neighbor Richard Astor entered a partnership: “I kept my land, my neighbor kept his land and we mortgaged both to buy a third property for the farm workers.” Initially they transferred the one-third stake into the Wijn de Caab Trust trust for the 180 farm workers and residents. Profits allowed the workers and tenants to pay for health care, school fees and a social worker to tackle issues of alcoholism and domestic violence. It also offers adult education, a daycare and after-school options.

Now everyone had a stake in ensuring the property (which is farmed as one large unit) would succeed. After a massive training drive, the management team at Solms-Delta is now the most racially inclusive in the industry.

Solms didn’t go into farming to become a land-reform activist, but the success of his project caught the eye of neighboring farms as well as government. “Farm owners know they are living on a time bomb,” Solms says. “But now I can say we took the risk, did this thing and it worked.”

By actively telling their story, the farmers at Solms have begun mentoring other landowners and the change is spreading. As part of a pilot project, the National Department of Rural Land Reform is using Solms-Delta as a model and offering logistical support and financing to farmers who partner with their workers. Rather than landowners taking out a mortgage with the bank, government loans with more favorable terms will be available.

Funded by the government’s new National Empowerment Fund (NEF), the land owned by the workers has increased from 20 to 50 hectares and their ownership percentage at Solms-Delta has now grown to 45 percent. The deal includes a six-member board, one each for the NEF​, ​Solms, Astor and the farm’s chief executive​​, and two representatives for the workers​.

Still, the farm’s transformation wouldn’t have been as meaningful if the wine wasn’t good, says Solms. “We don’t want people to make a sympathy purchase.” The hope is that consumers are attracted by the story, enchanted by the farm itself; but when they taste the wine, that’s when they become committed to reform.