A Groote Schuur Hospital neuroscientist & wine farmer’s remarkable story
Franschhoek, the picturesque jewel of the Cape winelands, has remained largely untransformed for centuries. But in the heart of the opulent viticulture sits an estate where the farm workers are also the farm’s owners. What happened here? And does the story of Solms-Delta offer the possibility of a model for peaceful, profitable land reform? At an event that included a historical tour, wine tasting and exploration of the Delta estate, neuroscientist Mark Solms spoke to UCT Alumni, taking them through the story of the unique transformation project that he and the Solms-Delta community have been undertaking. Here is his story, in his own words. This article first appeared in UCT Alumni News and is republished by kind permission.
I am a South African. I am the 6th in seven generations of a South African family. My family were landowners in Germany before they landed in Cape Town. They took farms between here Franschhoek, and Swellendam. During the apartheid years, I left South Africa for England to escape conscription, and whilst I was there, despite my field being neuropsychology, I took the opportunity to train in psychoanalysis.
To everyone’s great surprise, apartheid ended, and the premise under which I left South Africa no longer applied. So I wrapped up my affairs as soon as I could and returned here with the idea that in taking on this farm, I will have the opportunity to address, in a small way, this legacy of apartheid. I was thrilled to come back and to embrace South Africa, and to engage with what was then a heavy task of contributing, in my symbolic, personal, microcosmic way, to the reconstruction and development of the country. So I came on a reconnaissance trip, and the first thing I wanted to do was to meet the farm workers.
Let me pause for a moment to emphasise the point that, in South Africa, if you inherit or purchase land, it comes with people. I put it in that crude fashion intentionally, for the full shock of it to be apparent, because it is almost literally that they the workers on the farm belong to you.
They are people who “come with the land.” They are not there by choice, they are there because they have nowhere else to live. They live under a roof provided by the landowner and they are therefore beholden to him. They are in an extremely vulnerable position, and in one way or another, for better or worse, you as the farm owner are responsible for them.
So when I say that I was taking on the symbolic legacy of our past, it’s not only symbolic. The brutal fact is that you are practically a feudal lord if you own farmland in South Africa, even right now, in the 21st century. The reality of what I was doing, trying to come in and transform a few hectares of land in South Africa, became clear on the very first day of dealing with it.
The plan for that day was to meet with each family in what was to be my dining room. There were seven families at that point living on what was then the Delta farm, so I planned to interview each family for an hour, with an hour-long lunch break in between. I started each interview with roughly the same phrases, which were:
“Hello it’s nice to meet you. I’m Mark, and as much I look like my predecessors, I’m not the same – I’m nice, I’m good.”
Those aren’t quite the words, but I really did say, ‘I want you to know immediately that this farm will not be the same at it was. I want to change this place – that’s the whole idea. I’ve come back to South Africa in order to make some small contribution to the transformation and the redevelopment of the country. Since you’ve been living here forever, you’re in a very good position to advise me, so what do you think? How might we begin to change this place? What are the problems? What are the things you think need changing?’
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the response in these meetings – none of them lasted a whole hour – was absolute silence. The farm workers looked at each other, looked at the floor, looked petrified and dismayed and confused and just wanted to get the hell out of there. I tried to ask direct questions, tried to make eye contact, and to engage with at least one person who would talk to me. It was like pulling teeth; it was absolutely impossible and excruciating. I was really very daunted during that first attempt and I realised that I’m up against something that’s going to be really hard to achieve, even if it’s just one farm.
I went back to London the next day. But I thought, someone has to be in charge whilst I’m away, so I appointed a staff member named Nico as manager, only because he spoke English and the only reason I knew he spoke English was because he actually spoke to me. I called him during the next week, just to remind him that I meant it when I said he was manager, and I asked him how it was going; and I’ve never forgotten what he said, because it was so stunning to me.
He said: ‘After you left, we, the farm workers prayed to God to thank him for sending us a new owner who we don’t have to be scared of.’
Can you believe it? ‘Sending us a new owner’ is bad enough. But ‘that we don’t have to be scared of’? Not that he’s a decent man, but that we don’t have to be afraid of him.
So I came back with my family and we started to renovate the main house, and at the same time we started to renovate the workers’ houses. And I think that that was one of the things that made them realise that I was different from my predecessors. I was obviously spending a lot of money fixing up their houses at the same time that I was fixing mine.
I was also changing all types of policies that I didn’t even know existed. For example, the rule that if it’s raining you don’t get paid, because you don’t work, which I found bizarre. Another thing I thought was unbelievable was that the farm workers had no hot water – now, in the 21st Century.
In fact, on one of the farms next door, which we eventually acquired, the workers were living in the stables. The then-owner of the farm had built beautiful new stables for the horses, and so the workers were living in the old stables.
When I started renovating the workers houses he came running over, out of the goodness of his heart, to tell me: ‘no we don’t do it like that,’ and explained to me the reason why we don’t renovate the workers houses. It is because when we want to evict them, we are then obliged by the new government to give them housing that is of an equivalent standard to the housing that they had on your farm.
So people are raising families in spaces that are deliberately kept appalling so that when you evict them you only owe them a space like that. I suppose that is why they the workers thought I was different.
I’ll tell you what happened next. The farm workers, when they realised that I was genuinely different, started pitching up late for work on Mondays. Not coming to work on Fridays. A few bits and pieces started going missing. Eventually the pump which was being used for irrigation was stolen, and other things.
You can imagine how I started to feel. I felt really pissed off and I went: ‘I get it. They think I‘m a fool. They think no-one is in charge.’ But on reflection, I later came to the conclusion that there is such a deeply entrenched model of abuse on the farms, so that if I’m not the one taking advantage of my position, then they must take advantage of me. It’s not possible that you’re actually on the same side.
I found myself being pushed into the proper role of enemy, where I just knew that I was angry and I thought ‘well bloody hell, that’s not fair.’ And then something else happened, the workers from a neighbouring farm started cutting down camphor trees on the Delta estate, in the dead of night, presumably to use as firewood.
So I thought ‘well that kind of makes sense’ and so I asked Nico to tell them they don’t need to chop down my camphors, they could instead take the logs of black wattle that I’d placed at the entrance. But not a single log of wood was taken, in fact the camphors kept getting chopped down. So I started experiencing all sorts of feelings, one of them being fear, because I thought there was something sinister going on here – it felt to me like an act of aggression.
I spoke to my staff and the explanation I received was: ‘it’s because they’re Bushmen; they don’t think like us.’ Which is a racist explanation – that there’s another category of person that ‘doesn’t think like us.’ And of course, on these farms, to be called a Bushman is an insult. It means you’re less than a person.
By this time, I was thoroughly confused. I was demoralised, hurt, irritated, and I felt betrayed. I looked at what I was trying to do for them and what they were doing to me and then I realised ‘my God I have become my worst nightmare. I have become the old-school farmer.’ I was horrified, because I had come here with this vision of me, the ‘white Knight’ who was going to take over Delta and make everything different, and it was just all ending in tears. Nothing was changing, everything was a total mess. I felt I was starting to think like a white racist farmer, and I was aggrieved.
And at that point, I didn’t know what to do. I’m not a trained farmer. What I know about is clinical stuff. When a patient comes in my office at Groote Schuur, I take a history: ‘When did it start? How did things develop after that?’ That’s how you understand a symptom so that you can make a diagnosis, so you know how to intervene.
In an act of desperation I fell back on what I knew and said, ‘well, I’ve got to take a history.’ So we stopped farming. Not that I was the doctor and the farm workers were the problem, and I was now going to take their history and try to fix it – we were the problem. There was something pathological going on between us and we needed to find out where that was coming from.
So I called in other experts to take the history – namely members of the UCT departments of Archaeology and History – to help us dig this place up and teach us what occurred here, so that we could understand what happened on this farm and how we got to be in the position that we are in now. And I must say, I didn’t quite know what I was doing when I did it, so it wasn’t as inspired as it looks in retrospect – it was an act of desperation.
We dug the place up, and we found things, like stone tools of the Bushmen that had lived here. About 30-40 metres from my front door, we found a Bushmen settlement with thousands of stone artefacts, beautifully shaped. Benni was part of the team that found that site. Benni comes up to me and looks me in the eye and says to me; ‘You see professor; my people were here before yours.’
And I’m just giving you that snippet to illustrate the thing that happened during those digs. It changed his perception of his relation to this place and therefore his relation to me. The power relations between us changed immediately because, implied behind that statement was, ‘So why do you own it? And why do I work for you?’
There were other moments embedded within that – another obvious one was that Benni was now referring to the Bushmen as ‘my people.’ (This is the same guy who had said ‘they don’t think like us.’)
So the archeologists dig up all this stuff and they show us all the rock art and they are explaining to us how the Bushmen lived, and the Khoi Khoi. And the next thing the archaeologists tell us is what happened to them: genocide. So Benni is saying ‘my people were here before yours’ and the archeologists are telling us, ‘yeah and guess what your people did to his people.’ And when you ask ‘why is Benni living on this farm now and working for me?’ It is a direct consequence of what happened back then.
The Bushmen who survived began to work for us. They had no other choice. And their descendants are still here and they still work for us. And after the genocide, there were not enough people left to farm, to do the work, so then we had to get slaves. And it was these kinds of things that we had to look at in the process of digging up the history of this place.
Everyone who works here now, if their face isn’t white, if they are not descended from the bushmen or the Khoi, then they are descended from the slaves who were brought here in their droves.
By 1660, I think, the slave population outnumbered the settler population. This farm was built by slaves, and their descendants are working here still. And after slavery came apartheid; and the workers remembered that only too well. So someone from the History department took oral histories.
Each of us told our stories, those of us who wanted to. It was the most moving experience of my life, just to listen to the ordinary stories of the workers on this farm. The grinding poverty. I had no idea of the daily humiliation of poverty. I had no idea. It’s absolutely shocking to be sitting in your giant sitting room with a fireplace made by Herbert Baker listening to these stories.
One after another they talked about getting their first pair of shoes, at age 12 or 13. It was an event. This was a recurring theme. Sanna told me that she used to put her feet in cow dung to keep them warm because she didn’t have shoes, and I remember saying that I don’t even recall getting my first pair of shoes. So Willie Klaasen says ‘but Prof, you were born with shoes on,’ which of course is true in a very deep sense.
So I told my life story. I have never been so ashamed of telling my life story with all its piffling problems in the context of that. But it’s something that’s worth doing, because there are things that we haven’t begun to take responsibility for, haven’t even acknowledged. We had the TRC, which was a brilliant thing, with all its big, newsworthy events, but we should also have a commission where people go and tell those ordinary stories of what it was really like, on both sides of the divide of apartheid.
Eventually, I realised that my original intention was just a fantasy, that I was going to come and meet with the families and ask them what they wanted to change and things were simply going to transform.
I mean, why would people be enthusiastic about ‘transforming’ my farm, the farm that we took from their ancestors? It’s ridiculous to think that you can wipe out that history that’s so ingrained in us here on the farm. What we had to do was much more difficult.
What I first had to do was discover that I too am a racist and also that I owe a huge debt, that the most appalling things have happened here. And it wasn’t my fault that they happened but we are all still complicit because we are directly living the consequences of that now and that’s why we have to fix it.
Racism, I realised, is a defence. To be told that ‘these people’ are ‘like that’ is so much easier than to really look at why things are the way they are. So let me tell you where this goes. Once you face the history, the next question you have to ask yourself is: ‘Well, do I keep the farm?’
And that’s the big question around land reform. There are two facts: 1. Something terrible has happened here and 2: I can’t bring myself to give up the farm. In these circumstances, how am I going to pay back what I owe?
Eventually, we came to a solution. Richard Astor – my English friend who owns a neighbouring farm – and I, we went to the bank and proposed that we put our two farms up as collateral, 50/50, against a loan for the farm workers to buy the farm next door. And the bank said okay.
And so the workers bought the farm next door, which, by the way, came with workers as well, so we now have a community of 180 people. No one physically moved, but the workers collectively own one of the three farms. All of them became beneficiaries of the trust that owns that farm. They own one third of the land that is farmed by Solms-Delta and one third of the company that farms these farms, and we farm them as a unit. So now we truly are all in this together, sink or swim.
Not to say that they are rich but at least now they have a decent income, including dividends, benefits, nicely built houses, and the chance to send their kids to proper schools, so that we can break the cycle of poverty and dependency.
And in this way I get to keep my farm. It’s not self-sacrifice, it’s enlightened self-interest. Which isn’t a sin as long as you remember that you’re not alone: the farm workers also need land.
What we also did is, we made a museum of what actually happened here, and the people that work here are very proud of that museum. And the tourists, they love it – we get over 30 thousand visitors coming in every year for the past four years.
A proper understanding of the cultural background, the things that the workers do, became part of the museum. And we didn’t want to just highlight the bad but also the good. All the stories are complicated.
What I am telling you is that since then we did well. We commercially benefited from doing the obvious thing. We also have the most fabulous labour relations because we are all on the same side, so when the strikes happened the workers here didn’t strike, because they own the business. They would have been striking against themselves.
I don’t believe you can solve the land reform issue with a policy that forces everyone to give back their farms. I don’t think the landowners are going to be willing to do that.
But then again, we can’t just maintain ‘the status quo’. Why would you tolerate it if you are the majority of the population of this land? Why would you vote in a government that says, year after year, that it’s okay for the white farmers to keep the land? It’s crazy. These things happened – genocide, slavery, apartheid. They happened, and they have consequences, especially if you don’t acknowledge them. There has to be something in this for everyone.BACK TO TOP