Farm Labor, Yesterday & Today

Working Harvest

Agricultural labor has been a controversial issue in South Africa for many years. In the Western Cape, the 75% “Brown” majority population, historically known as Cape Coloureds but without the pejorative implications of a similar US term for African Americans from an earlier period, provides over 90%+ of the vineyard labor force. The Browns are a small stature, mulatto people, proud descendents of indigenous San and Koi-Koi tribes coupling for 150 years with former Malay slaves, Dutch East Indies Company sailors and early European settlers and missionaries. They constitute the dominant majority population of the Western Cape, speak Afrikaans as their principal language, and often resent the Black tribes that compose the majority population of the other provinces of South Africa. Accordingly, most direct farm management must be accomplished in Afrikaans. Not surprisingly, virtually all European descent (white) grape farmers culturally choose to speak Afrikaans but most are reasonably proficient in English as well.

Historically Black South Africans have had a very small involvement in the Cape wine industry, constitute about 10% of the local Cape population, speak their tribal languages, but far prefer English to Afrikaans as a second language. Most Black involvement in the vineyard industry has been as day laborers during the intense harvest periods. Very few live on farms but rather at harvest are trucked in from urban informal settlements. That understood, our permanent crew is about 50% Black and 50% Brown, and Anton is pleased with the attitude and cooperation of all our workers.

The permanent farming crew Anton supervises is comprised of seven men, and four women, who reside in the seven worker units on Silkbush. We also have another 12-14 men who work for us on a “permanent part-time” basis who live in Wolseley, a rural village about 17 minutes away. We have a team of very motivated people who, including an annual bonus, are paid above average for the area, and some of whom are resident in farm housing in far better condition than anything in which they have lived before. Our people are salaried, work 45 hours a week on average, nine hours per day for five days, and receive three weeks of paid vacation per year, and numerous national holidays. Little things can also mean a lot: most farms issue their workers one new set of uniform coveralls per year but we give out a new set every six months. True, we are incurring modest labor costs by a US standard, but we are also paid far less for our grapes than in the US. We all are proud of our local labor practices. Silkbush is more than doing its part in the “new South Africa.”

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