3. The First Year

Our first few months on the farm saw us excited and overwhelmed. It took quite a while for us to gather ourselves.


Our initial activity was to attend to the rubbish on the farm, and to this end we bought a bakkie – a Toyota diesel – and began carting rubbish to the Malmesbury dump. No waste had ever been taken off the farm – that meant for over a hundred and fifty years – and we estimate that in those first months we moved at least ten tonnes of all forms of rubbish to the dump. This included old washing machines, tractor tyres and parts of cars from the sloots (water ways) and the lower kloofs (ravines) of the mountain.

Labour Relations

The biggest task during the first year, was to tackle the farmworker situation. There were six worker families on the farm, existing under what can only be described as feudal conditions. Worker houses had no electricity, no toilets and no access to running water, and pay was pitiful. But worst of all workers were on what was called the dop system. This meant that they received a coke can – 340 millilitres – of wine before work (inval dop), the same after their breakfast break at 8:30 and then at again one at lunch time. Mid-afternoon they got another coke can and at the close of work a full liter (uitval dop). Once a week each family received a sack of meel (grain). For food, the workers shopped at a farm shop with goods bought by the owner – tinned fish, bread when available, fatty sausages, flour and sugar. Once a month the owner drove them into Malmesbury to shop.

Needless to say the worker population was one of alcoholics, and in the Western Cape, generations of vineyard workers had been kept in alcoholic submission this way. Of our workers there was only one woman, Annetjie, who did not drink. She said that one day she had found her children under the bed hiding from her during a drinking spree, and she had resolved then and there to stop drinking. Which to her credit she did.

The alcoholism meant that on Mondays and Tuesdays workers were babelas (hung over) and basically unable to work – if they came to work at all. And during the weekends there was violence. There wasn’t a weekend that went by without someone, usually a woman, coming down to the house bleeding from gashes to the head or body, the wounds covered in borrie (turmeric) as an antiseptic. Or someone would come to the farmhouse crying to fetch us saying their father or brother was being beaten up by another worker. Unsurprisingly all the children without exception suffered from FAS (Feotal Alcohol Syndrome). We were aghast. This was a medieval system and our workers were, to quote a phrase of Frans Fanon, `the wretched of the earth’.

Where to begin?! The first thing we did was to put electricity into workers houses and build a bathroom facility with running water and toilets. At the same time we interviewed each worker, trying to find out what work they did, and what they wanted to do. As to the latter they all looked back at us uncomprehendingly and we realised that a sense of ambition was sadly not part of their mindset. So we wrote up fairly general work contracts which entitled them to decent pay and fair work conditions and we laid down basic regulations for behavior.

Johan dispenses wine

Then we set about eradicating the dop system. This we did in stages. First stage we sold wine rather than gave it, and we did this twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The second stage, three months later, we reduced the days when wine was sold to once a week, and then, three months after this, we stopped the sale of wine altogether. We also phased out the farm shop and instead took workers once a week into Malmesbury to do their own shopping.

The response to all of this was great unhappiness, and within six months four of the six couples working on the farm quit. For a number of years to follow we tried employing other workers from the area but it always resulted in them either quitting, or us firing them for not coming to work, coming to work drunk, or for violence. We had finally resorted to a zero tolerance for violence done to any adult or child and to any animal domestic or wild. Anyone guilty of violence was immediately fired.

Our failure to rehabilitate our workers despite our efforts and despite contact with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), a regional women’s organization, and a Stellenbosch farmworkers organization, left us no choice but to allow our local workers to phase out. This was with the exception of Basil Maja, a Xhosa man, who remained with us until his death in 2022. At the same time we phased in Zimbabwean workers, and as compensation, to put some capacity back into the local community, we set about establishing a crèche in the area. More of that later.

Starving Dogs

In our first year on the farm we also attended to the problem of abused dogs. Each worker family had one or more dogs – chained up and starving- outside of their house. At first we tried talking to each family about the need for better food for their dogs and for long running chains. (We were afraid that if let off their leads the dogs would go for the neighbors’ sheep.) But our efforts got nowhere, and I came to understand that when people are barely surviving, the welfare of their dogs is not paramount. Thus, after three months, with a heavy heart, I took six poor creatures too far gone for re-homing, to the vet to be put to sleep. I found homes for four that were less damaged. We also made a rule that no one could keep dogs on the farm.

The Swimming Pool

Our final task during the first year on the farm was to put in a swimming pool. We realized that Malmesbury heat in summer made this a necessity, and a large black resin pool was trucked to us and lowered into the ground by workers. It has provided great relief through the years to family, friends and guests.