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The story of how Mark Solms joined hands with the workers of his farm to create a model of successful land reform.

Land Dispossession – Mark Solms

Candice: In our previous two instalments, we talked about how land has become the most important
problem facing South Africa and just why it is such a difficult problem to solve.

(Catch up from last months’ discussion here)

Candice: I wanted to know what hope there is for SA, especially when it comes to land reform.

Greg talked about the tours he takes to the wine farms around Cape Town and how so many of them
are carbon copies of each other – making money for white people on the backs of black labour. But
he mentioned his favourite one, Solms-Delta in the Franschhoek valley, which completely breaks the
mould. [Link to wine tour or put link at the end of the blog??]

Now I have even more reason to drink a toast to our future (with wine). This is what Greg had to
say…

Greg: When I first visited Solms-Delta I was struck by the fact that I felt like I was not walking into an
artfully sanitised factory for making wine but rather into somebody’s home. I felt like a guest, not a
client. As I wandered around the farm, I realised the feeling of welcome and appreciation I was
getting came from the staff, all of whom behave as hosts. They don’t behave like paid employees,
they behave like owners who like showing off what they own and make.

It’s simple. They are owners.

Mark Solms, who is well known as a neuropsychologist at UCT, made a pile of money and bought a
farm but was disheartened by the depressing picture of post-Apartheid dispossession that he now
found himself a party to. You can find out the long complicated story of the “how” elsewhere, but in
the end he created a workers trust for the farm workers who now, as a collective, own nearly 50% of
the farm. Pretty risky for a brain-doctor- ish type even if he has a family history of farming.

But how is this progress? One white dude owns more than all his non-white workers put together.

It’s progress because it works. It’s progress because it isn’t static and is aimed and moves toward a
future that is fundamentally different from the past.

The share started as 66% for Mark and 33% for the workers trust. It’s since increased to 55:45 but
this isn’t actually the most important part of why this works. Sure it’s vitally important because
workers have an interest in making sure that this place is successful, because they have a direct
vested interest in it.

But it also means that they can’t be fired willy-nilly and kicked off the land. They have tenure. They
have security in knowing they are home. In the simplest and most symbolic terms, this is what land is
to all people. The power of knowing you belong to a place cannot be overestimated…

It’s also a genius idea because it sees land as a system, not a commodity. Mark and the workers are
bound together in a mutually beneficial system that connects them all to a host of (sometimes
unseen) benefits. The skills of the farm workers are utilised appropriately and rewarded
appropriately so that the value of their labour is more accurately demonstrated, not just to the
world, but to themselves. Mark’s skills are also put to good use and, more importantly, Mark’s
power, prestige and pennies that come with the white privilege he takes for granted are utilised to
benefit the workers even while he continues to benefit from the same connections that wealth
affords.

The place is now much more than just a farm. It’s a major player in heritage resource management
with a museum and workers who have become archaeologists. It has revitalised an almost lost
musical and dance tradition, its workers now travelling to other farms to teach and reawaken a
sense of belonging amongst other farm workers. They also started a social housing project and an
indigenous farming experiment which provides produce to a very enjoyable fine dining restaurant.
It’s still also a farm producing wine for the local and international market.

Instead of seeing land as a commodity with which to buy our freedom from the past, the Solms-
Delta model uses land as a key component in how to change a system, bringing people together and
utilising their differences for everyone’s’ benefit. It doesn’t dispense with the old system entirely,
but re-orients it toward a future that slowly becomes real while delivering incrementally improving
benefits for all concerned along the way. It might still look too similar to the old white owned past,
but it is giving birth to a more equitable future we can only just make out in the mist of tomorrow.

Candice: I was impressed by the story of Solms-Delta but it occurred to me while Greg was talking
that there are all sorts of things that could go wrong with this model. Like what happens to Mark’s
part of the farm when he passes on? Is it passed on to his family? If his family isn’t into farming and
say he only has one descendant who wants to become a dermatologist, what would happen then?

Naturally, these are questions Greg can’t answer as but he did share this…

Greg: I’m guessing that, there is the potential of the workers buying out the share owned by Mark or
his descendants. No doubt lots of skilled people have been brought on to help navigate the future
but there is no guarantee that it will always work or not have loads of difficult and potentially
troubling battles.

When measured against the past of this country, where being apart resulted in us killing each other
before we even tried to talk to each, I would rather have the complicated task of figuring out how to
come together even if it’s awkward and frustrating and full of tears. It seems to me that when we
are arguing with each other but we’re still in the same room, this is reason for hope. We wouldn’t be
fighting with each other if we didn’t care.

I’m reminded of a saying I first heard from Peter Storey in the days of Apartheid: “The pain of
coming together is better than the pain of being apart.”

Candice: The idea of sticking together even when we’re battling each other resonated with me and I
found myself thinking of a slightly ridiculous marital dilemma:  What’s worse for a husband: a wife
that is silently calculating in frozen calm or a red-hot, explosive screaming banshee? If he’s smart,
he’ll choose the banshee because when I go silent, you’re in deep, deep trouble. It’s twisted for sure,
but I think most women would identify – a load argument is not a sign of failure, but a sign of hope.

So when our politicians are screaming at each other, at least they care about the problem, they want
to resolve it and hopefully they stay in the same room long enough to do so. They may not agree
with each other, but they care enough to scream at each other. When they stop and leave the room,
refuse to talk, then we need to be really scared (unless of course the problem is solved. Then we can
find something else for them to scream about!)

Ja. There is hope as long as we don’t stop arguing with each other.