Stellenbosch strikes me as one of those places that got put on the table by the National Party during the negotiated settlement pre-1994, something the ANC conceded in exchange for democracy. In fact, there’s a joke with more than a single grain of truth that the design of apartheid was conceived in one of the student residences of Stellenbosch University, where the young “architects” lived together. The divided socioeconomic structure of Stellenbosch is a living testimony to the long-term objective of apartheid.

In Stellenbosch, Coloured farm workers’ lives still matter little to the White landowners, as this community is in a wretched state of violence and drug abuse. Yet, driven by addiction and poverty they provide a constant supply of cheap labour. African people matter even less but have the benefit of relative sobriety and as a result can be trained faster and are easier to manage as labourers. The problem with Africans however is that they don’t all speak Afrikaans, and some don’t speak English either because they come from the Eastern Cape. This is considered a threat to Afrikaans hegemony in Stellenbosch because African communities in the area are growing rapidly as those arriving from the Eastern Cape, looking for work, also find a relatively functional public health service. Through democratic processes, the new threat of the Swart Gevaar is in being out-voted in your homebase. As for Indians, we may as well not exist. I know this because I spent 6 months leading an almost invisible life in that town.

As one enters the town off Baden Powell Drive on the N2 out of Cape Town, there’s an observable difference between White-owned and White-frequented establishments compared to those with Coloured and African customers. The reason I separate these two groups is because Coloureds don’t identify themselves as Black or as part of the Black majority and it’s evident in their interactions with African people. This is the legacy of apartheid and a failure of the new government to create a lasting unity. It’s similar to Indians in Durban who don’t identify themselves as Black either.

In Stellenbosch, as in the rest of the Western Cape, the ongoing perception of difference based on race or ethnicity reproduces separate development and segregation. Expensive restaurants and shops are located on the side of the town where the roads are lined with trees, and parks are filled with fit, young White university students, while tourists roam freely. And on the outskirts of the town, there are shops catering to the needs of workers. Every day thousands of African and Coloured people enter Stellenbosch in taxis, buses, trains and open top bakkies. They come in for work and then exit back to their homes at the end of the day. For those who have no place to go, there is a range of decent shelter in the centre of town which is safe, clean, well lit and has a number of solid buildings with dark corners. But for the most part, security guards won’t allow the unsightly presence of homeless people get in the way of the town’s cafe culture.

Tourists in Stellenbosch get to experience the world famous wine and complementary artisanal food that goes with it, while conveniently avoiding the dark reality of the labourers that toil to construct and maintain this picturesque fantasy. Again, I speak from personal experience because for 6 months I did just that. Except that I was confronted with the horrifying reality of the working class and the poor every day that I worked at Stellenbosch district hospital. It’s not that different from any other public hospital in South Africa: tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease and trauma, lots and lots of trauma.

On weekends and pay days, the incidence of violence and injuries peaks. Since Stellenbosch still bears the brunt of the legacy of the “dop” system, alcohol abuse amongst farm workers is endemic and every alternate weekend (which correlates with pay days) communities descend into a stupor of alcohol-induced self annihilation. Their self-destructive behaviour is likely a product of systematic dispossession, marginalisation and social isolation but is now driven by addiction. At a certain point in the collective stupor, they turn on each other and on nights like this, the emergency centre is a blood bath. Paramedics drive back and forth between locations picking up bleeding casualties and dropping them at the hospital to have their wounds sutured and cleaned.

This is the reality for Coloured and African communities of Stellenbosch; violence, alcoholism and drug abuse is part of life and being passed on from generation to generation with no end in sight. As for the farm and business owners, they don’t give a shit. As long as their separate lives are untouched by the brutality of the natives, they can enjoy the paradise of the Cape Winelands. Should something unforeseen spill over and disturb an owner’s manicured existence, workers are swiftly reminded that there is no place for anything other than servitude and respect for the boer and his business. For example, I’ll never forget the story from a sober young woman who was reprimanded by her employers after she was stabbed by her psychotic boyfriend in the reception area of a Franschhoek guesthouse where she worked.

In my previous job, I witnessed the inhumane living conditions that migrant farm workers on Limpopo farms bordering Zimbabwe experienced. And although they too were at the bottom of the food chain as a result of unfair labour practices and frank violations of human rights that persist in the agricultral sector, there was hope. There was a sense of motivation and a feeling that farm work was just a nasty yet necessary part of the journey on route to a better life. This doesn’t exist in the Cape Winelands as the poor and working class communities, trapped in a cycle of violence, are effectively at war with themselves, while the white farmers continue to reap the profits of their labour.

For me, the most horrifying part is the indifference towards it from the privileged White folk of Stellenbosch. How is it that in this university town, with an artist’s tribute to Nelson Mandela in the centre, there is no visibly active civil society speaking out against the unjust state of affairs, no one questioning the ongoing exploitation of farm workers or the lack of dedicated social programmes to alleviate the suffering and break the cycle of violence? What is the excuse now that apartheid is over and the “dop” system is illegal? Is it a case of “out of sight, out of mind”? Because it does go easily unnoticed when you spend your time between the university and wine tasting. The white people of Stellenbosch, clearly those with the means to affect change, don’t identify with the problem, don’t take any active responsibility towards it and hence are unable to condemn themselves for their part in it. Their attitude is likely an extreme version of what is generally true of the majority of white South Africans who could care less about what their privilege is built on. Perhaps if they “were to condemn themselves, they would have to inflict punishment on themselves”. And so the effect of the theft of self-determination that took place decades ago, continues unabated on its own momentum. But in the end it is highly unlikely that they will take the initiative in any sort of transformative project in Stellenbosch.

If boycotting Stellenbosch wine is a little too extreme, then try this: next time you’re admiring the legs of one the Cape Winelands’ finest exports, take a moment to reflect on the blood, sweat and tears, the violence, abuse and exploitation of women, men, families and communities that go into making that wine. As with the farm workers strike of January 2013, it’s obvious that this situation is ripe for revolution. Call me romantic, but soon the day will come when the anger and frustration of workers is no longer haphazardly hurled at each other, but organised and directed at their oppressors.

* This piece is published here with the kind permission of Amandla Magazine. The new issue is now available.

#WhiteHistoryMonth: Thank God, you were born white
#WhiteHistoryMonth: How Unexpected
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Indira Govender

Indira Govender is a doctor and activist working in public health.

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54 thoughts on “What they don’t tell you in the brochure about Stellenbosch

  1. From the comments above, I’d say that Stellenbosch apologists are divided into 2 camps: those that deny the extent of the problem by discrediting my opinion and those that excuse it as just another example of South Africa’s problems. Yes, the truth hurts… but maybe in time you’ll develop some ability to critically evaluate reality in Stellenbosch, not from your perspective but from someone else’s, perhaps that of a farm worker or whatever you call those people working in the vineyards, living at the bottom of the barrel so to speak. I have no interest in giving you the political education you need to engage with this kind of criticism. The point I’m making, amongst others that you missed, is that even at a superficial glance, your town is a problem. Your individual acts of charity are always welcome and most likely contribute to individual success stories but sadly amount to very little in the face of ongoing structural inequality and racism. Would any of you willingly switch places with the people on the receiving end of your benevolence? Would you live, work and raise your family on a farm? Would you rely on the charity of the baas for your survival? Would you happily aspire to be “Farm Worker of the Year”? I didn’t think so.
    The fact is that if you really cared about uplifting or transforming the lives of labourers in Stellenbosch, or at least shifting the dynamics, you’d start by radically changing the way you do business on every level in that town. But I doubt that will happen voluntarily because it means acknowledging that you have more and that you need to give back to those who are dispossessed. It also means taking into account the unsustainable politics of capitalism. Action follows understanding and awareness, and in that sense change is likely to be forced upon you.
    Oh, and just because Stellenbosch happens to be replica of every other privileged white town in South Africa, doesn’t mean anyone should refrain from talking about it.

  2. firstly, i am not an apologist – i just stated that your article is a sign of extremely bad research. i don’t want to apologize anything – things are the way they are – but you completely fail to look at them without you’re post-colonial pseudo marxist glasses. that is your problem – if you are happy with your self righteous nonsense – well then be it that way.

    but please stop patronising others, that’s what they had in stellenbosch for 350 years – it’s enough now.

    • ah Joe, give the girl a break. how will she prove to her contemporaries that she’s more actively engaged with the plight of the working class if she doesn’t shrilly proclaim it every opportunity she gets?

  3. Hi Themba, my white forbears arrived here as migrants, fleeing from terrible wars in the countries in which they were living. They had absolutely nothing when they arrived and were not even allowed to speak their own language. They were given a few crude implements and started doing the only thing that they knew – planting vines. They often went through hell like when the vines all got phyloxera and died. They went hungry and had to turn their clothes inside out to make them last longer. It has been a history of ups (like when there was war in Europe and the English could not buy French wine) and very bad downs.

    Today very few people can still make a living out of wine farming – it has just become too expensive to plant, to water and to fight the plagues. The farms are now owned by people who have made a lot of money in other places and come here to have the status of owning a wine farm. They spend huge amounts of money on beautifying the farms, and on building guest accommodation, restaurants and massive factory-like cellars. These farms are very big employers of rural people who have jobs like wine-making, presenting wine-tastings, and working in the hospitality trade that flourishes on the farms. The problem is still the jobs that have to be done in the heat of the sun during the harvest. As many local farm workers upgrade to softer jobs, this job often has to be done by seasonal workers. In every country this is a problem – in France, where I visited, people volunteer without payment to help with the harvest, in the USA it is often done by migrant Mexican workers.

    All in all I do not feel guilty about my forefathers – I am quite proud, actually, when i see the beautiful vineyards around the town and know that these were first planted by the sweat of their brows. Some in the past would have maybe been “rapacious” when they had the chance, and way back some would have been slave owners. Of that I am not proud. But there are many people in the world who need to feel guilty about that legacy, including the Africans who caught other Africans to sell them, and some African tribes who used the San people as slaves. It was an earlier and more cruel time. My farming forefathers obviously had to live through the time of apartheid. But they were not separated as city folk were and their workers were their closest neighbours, the playmates of their children – my mother and her friend kept in touch till death did them part. My grandmother told me that the farms were pretty run down compared to how they look today. Neither farmer not workers had luxuries of comfort or modern conveniences.
    Apartheid, in my view, was an inhuman policy and needed to fail. People are so inclined to not want a different kind of person in their environs – look at Rwanda. So we have to be ever careful.

    It would be very sad indeed if your threats to the farms here were to materialize – thousands and thousands of people have excellent jobs on farms, most of the farms are open to the public and anyone is free to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, even if it is just for a glass of wine or a coffee, or just to roam around in their gardens. Young men, such as the son of my domestic worker, have had opportunities to travel to foreign countries to market wines. His ability in marketing was recognized and nurtured on the farm where he works. He is well paid and leads a comfortable middle class life.

    Themba – many stereotypes were created during the apartheid era: farm workers were the stereotypes number one and they are sick and tired of it. Maybe I have a stereotype of you that is not correct – but I am very sad that you think so terribly in terms of black and white when it comes to employers in this country. White people used to be 20% of this country. Now they are only 9%. Soon, according to demographic graphs, they will be an ever diminishing fraction. Have you also checked what thousands of black employers are doing in their shops, mines, factories and shebeens? The country is yours. Run it well, run it with compassion. As Indira so rightly says, the poor are in desperate need of people who can create opportunities, and of people who care, of people who will include them into the mainstream of services and jobs. (That takes more effort than ranting and raving and going on the rampage.) Zimbabweans could come here when Mugabe’s plans went belly up. Quieten the rage in your head now, think carefully of your future in a climate that is getting hotter and hotter, cos you, and me, will have nowhere to go when the harvests run dry. Pity those desperate migrants who swarm across the Mediterranean in death trap boats ……

    • Lilly you are so right and giving so much more facts than the writer itself….how can an educated person in a right mind incite to no further business in that area….how will that solve the problems? Oh by having everyone poor ! Does she think she is so right by even answering again saying there are the apologists , she wants warriors. ..she wants rebilion she wants no farms….I can see this coming as well if a doctor is inciting what should one expect from the mass of less educated….The way she doesn’t think about a class of people at all and calling for action to impoverish them I wanted to give her another scenario but no…she can figure out for herself . Indira you got this from a foreigner which was bulshited to believe you are the honorable COUNTRY of a noble price winner forPEACE.

  4. Indira your anger at conditions is clearly heart-felt, but in the comments immediately above yours, several harsh realities were pointed out that you failed utterly to address. As a very well-known (if not utterly bright) American president once observed, “a litany of complaints is not an action plan”. It is unfortunate if the local employers with the capital and the land cannot do more to help locals, but you seem to rail against the injustices you see without offering any solutions.

  5. Terrible article. Written to try attract attention to itself and not to its content. Empty research and farfetched allegations. The ‘oppressors’, have you seen the state of the rest of the country and made any comparison? What ever Stellenbosch has done to you, try get over it in a different way rather than voicing an over exaggerated ‘opinion’ like this.

  6. I am so terribly thankful I am not a patient of this doctor. If this is an example of the quality of her diagnostic skills, then I will forever have to weep for her poor patients.

  7. besides all this “false conciousness” nonsense – there is the stats sa homepage with a direct link to stellenbosch municipality – and there is a simply dynamic i want to ask indira something about. in 2001 there were 118 thousand people living in stellenbosch and in 2011 – 155 thousand people were living in stellenbosch if it is such a racist hellhole as you imply, why do you think black people move there? and why do you think the unemployment rate decreased?

    • Indira most of these comments are proof that you can not change people. So many of you are drowning in your privilege and you refuse to see anyone elses point of view. Always coming from a standpoint of righteousness. According to some of you, your concerns are the only valid concerns and everyone elses concerns are just whiny and entitled.

      • Sarah and Indira – Thank you for speaking out – I call the mechanism behind these kind of comments “The psychology of the oppressor” – greedy, needy and selfish humans have to put down those who challenge their right to privilege. They can never recognise that their privilege is only possible with great cost to other people’s happiness. Its disgusting and this country is full of them. When I moved back here after 11 years in the UK (things are not much better there) I was horrified to find that so little has changed. Keep spreading the message!

      • well i have physical problems being your oppressor – maybe you just start looking at reality instead of your morally righteous fantasy world.

        The tourists love it in Stellenbosch and they create jobs – what do you create?

  8. Stellenbosch has many problems as you have identified, but it is also one of the areas with the greatest opportunity for change. The dominance of low skills entry industries such as tourism and agriculture, the existence of the university, the fact that there IS a hospital are all good things for addressing social problems.

    My sister in law is from a small township in the Eastern Cape and is studying social work at Stellenbosch university. She remarked on the prevalence of social facilities and development work in Khayamandi and how much better the township was than her home town, where there is nothing. The alliance between Stellenbosch municipality and the Slum Dwellers Alliance has resulted in some of the best informal settlement upgrades the country has seen. I encourage you to look at the good work that is being done and popularise it. maybe apathetic citizens will be encouraged by the progress enough to get involved.

    I would thus propose that despite the problems, Stellenbosch is a better place to be poor than many other places in the country, (not saying much I know) why else would so many people be moving there?

    I sympathise with your frustrations, but its wrong to ignore the substantial efforts of the local citizens, the state and ngo sectors to improve things. There is no quick fix and within our current economic path Stellenbosch is one of the areas making substantial gains in the social justice project.

    Of course more can be done and the firm blinkers that many privileged people put on are a hindrance to the greater success of social and economic development.

    I think it would be great to have a clear indication of which farms are empowerment engines for workers and which are treating their workers badly so that we can favour those farms and convince those farms with poor labour practice that its good business to treat labourers well. This would also be a simple way to get privileged people involved in social transformation. I know the Wine Industry Ethical Trade initiative was attempting this a few years ago, but I’m not sure how successful this was.

    An interesting participatory governance initiative, called the Participatory Appraisal of Competetive Advantage, is taking place in the area in May I believe. It looks at how to develop the economy and society in a sustainable way building on the competetive advantage of the area.

    I’d encourage those reading the comments to get involved, Indira perhaps you can come and share your concerns, its important that they stay on the table.

  9. Oh but Indira hinted at a solution: “Action follows understanding and awareness, and in that sense change is likely to be forced upon you.”
    We all realize what that means. What good are wineyards when the population is starving?
    Tear it all down, evict the evil land owners and give the land to the people. That should improve the nutritional state of affairs?

  10. You have been here for 6 months? I have been here for 24 years and I am colored. You are exaggerating and putting all colored and blacks in one box. Yes there are problems, but please do not make our town seem like a nightmare, this happens all over.

  11. I’m afraid you have missed the boat completely. Bad research and understanding of past and present practices in the winelands. The farms in the winelands provide better living conditions, healthcare benefits and monetary benefits when compared to farms anywhere in South Africa. No doubt things aren’t where they should be, but attacking white farmers and labeling them as people who don’t care is just ridiculous. You point out that Stellenbosch is divided socioeconomicly; which is just like every other town\city in the world. Purely a one sided view.

  12. Just get another topic. This “transformation is not happening” bullshit could really just blow over. Get angry at the leaders that aren’t creating jobs (the one’s that said they will), instead of trying to shift the blame to the ones that actually do have jobs and are trying to accommodate as many “Transformative” job seekers as possible. Get over yourself, your blog post is not going to change Stellenbosch, rather focus on getting rural places to empower themselves than, trying to breakdown established communities.

  13. Hi, I grew up on a farm on Stellenbosch. I got the opportunity to finish school and even study at the University. In saying that I had to work on weekends (at the local Pick n Pay) to pay both my high school and University fees. I still get tears in my eyes when I think back to the late 90′s how the “Boer” raped my mother infront of me, not sure if its still happening. I agree with the article though, people like my just turn a blind eye for the happenings and need to help the rest get out of that mess. Stellenbosch is still far behind the rest of the country and need to change ASAP. Also, i voted EFF.


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