The Day We Became Delta

(An edited version of the following article was published in the Sunday Independent on 9 November 2008; a bit of the background story to the post I want to write next.)

New lifeThey thought that he was just another white man come to make their lives miserable. The previous owner of the Zandvliet Delta farm filed for insolvency. The new one announced himself to the farm residents, wanting to meet every family individually. Nico Jansen, an outspoken member of the community, remembers his first encounter with Professor Mark Solms: “We were scared that he would want us off his land. But I knew we had to stand up for ourselves, because we belonged here.” He told Solms straight out, “You’re not going to kick us off!”

Mark Solms had no such intentions. Namibian-born, he emigrated in 1988 in search of better career opportunities. After having made a name for himself as a world-leading researcher into the brain mechanisms of dreaming, in 2002, he decided to follow his own dream of returning to Southern Africa. His late relative, Friedrich 4th Prince of Solms-Baruth, knew that Zandvliet Delta had been lost to creditors and recommended it. “He thought I would recognise the value of this place,” Solms recalls. “I came to look at the land after the great veld fires of that year. I remember the smoke-heavy air and the rustling of leaves when I walked around the farm. No decision had to be made; it was exactly the place I was looking for.”

The land in question, which became known as the Solms Delta, is situated in the Franschhoek Valley just off the R45 between Franschhoek and Paarl. The sheer beauty of the region and the quality of the wines produced here are world-famous. But Solms knew that settling and making wine in the area required a sensitivity to the historical burdens embedded in the local communities living in the Valley: “Very consciously, on a local scale I wanted to contribute to the transformation which was taking place in the country. I saw the farm as an opportunity. Only after getting here, I realised how challenging the whole project would be.”

Mark Solms was unprepared for the lack of enthusiasm and engagement he met with on the farm: “There seemed to be no common purpose or hope. The lethargy and depression were overwhelming.” For centuries people had lived here with strictly predetermined possibilities and would not think beyond them. He had to confront the “deeply uncomfortable role of a white farmer” which he suddenly personified. The attitude of most people on the farm was that, since he was the owner, they must be scared of him; or, if he does not live up to the role, then he can be taken advantage of. “We had to work around layers and layers of scar tissue,” he says. Moreover, he had to confront “the racism that exists in oneself”, and the tendency to transform while maintaining one’s own privileges.

Jansen was very sceptical about the plans Solms had for the Delta. “It was very difficult for us to believe in white people’s good intentions,” he remembers. But then Prof, as Jansen refers to Solms, took them by surprise. He met with all the families on the farm and addressed their fears directly. He also recognised Jansen’s leadership qualities and the young man became a facilitator between himself and the community: “He told me the reason he liked me was that I said what I thought, about him and the situation. It wasn’t a smooth path. There was a lot of mistrust on our part at first. But then Prof did two things that made people begin to respect him. He told us to work on our houses at the same time as we worked on his. Then he asked us what we were passionate about. Our answer was sports, especially rugby. So he had DSTV installed in all our homes.” These events were “attitude changing, real eye-openers,” Jansen recalls. “From the beginning Prof treated us as humans, and we decided to meet him halfway. Prof told us that he wanted to set right the things his people had done wrong. And I felt I could guide Prof’s dreams. I am proud of the fact that he didn’t break any of his promises.”

Shortly after his first visit to the Delta, Jansen telephoned Solms to tell him that the residents of the farm had organised “a prayer meeting to thank the Lord for sending them an owner they didn’t have to be scared of.” Solms knew that transformation would take time. Given human nature and the injustices of the past, “nobody can take your word for it in this place, sincerity has to be proven.” The changes have been gradual, but if he had to define the turning point, it would be the Bastille Day parade in Franschhoek last year. Tokyo Sexwale suggested using the festivities to celebrate, not the storming of the Bastille, but our local freedoms: the Huguenots’ freedom from religious persecution, freedom from slavery, Mandela’s freedom. The Solms Delta people created a unique float for the parade: a pyramid of wine boxes, each representing an inhabitant of the farm. They walked with the float, wearing t-shirts with their hands imprints on them in the colours of the South African flag, making music and waving to the crowds. It was “nation building on a small scale,” Solms remembers, “That day we were one, we were Delta, all of us.” The farm workers suddenly felt that a commercial event for the elites had turned into a festival in which there was a place for them. And to crown their achievement, they were awarded the prize for the best float. The feeling of belonging made Solms realise that they had “genuinely transformed the farm, in structure and feeling.”

In 2005, the Solms family established the Wijn de Caab Trust to benefit all the historically disadvantaged residents of the farm and other employees of the Solms-Delta wine company. In due course, Mark Solms convinced a dear friend from Britain, Richard Astor, to buy an adjacent farm, Lubeck Delta, and the Trust was restructured in the process. With the help of loan funding secured by the Solms and Astor families, the Trust purchased a third adjoining farm, Deltameer. The three linked properties now became equal partners in a common enterprise.

Alex van Heerden with Richard Astor and the Gramadoelas

Alex van Heerden with Richard Astor and the Gramadoelas

Richard Astor first visited his friend on Solms Delta in 2003. He returned several times and the beauty of the place grew on him, but he never considered settling here. In 2005, because of personal misfortune he needed a change and that was when Mark Solms suggested he buy the adjoining farm: “Mark managed to communicate his passion to me. I have been looking for a cause I could get involved in and it was suddenly easy to see the opportunities to make a difference here.” There was only one obstacle: “I love wine, but I can’t take it seriously; I don’t have the palate or Mark’s passion for it. He sees wine as an art form. I told him that the one art form I can be passionate about is music.”

The idea for the annual Oesfees (Harvest Festival) was born. Celebrated for the first time in April this year, it was an enormous success. Farm workers from the entire area were invited to participate in the festivities, involving traditional music, local food and wines. Richard Astor, a cornet player, performed on stage with the likes of David Kramer and the Delta Optel Band, consisting of Solms Delta residents and led by the young Cape music enthusiast, Alex van Heerden.

Farm youth dancing

Farm youth dancing

“Alex fitted perfectly into the project. He brings music out of people,” Astor says in admiration. Employed by the Delta Trust (established by Astor), van Heerden can now pursue a lifelong passion: “I have always wanted to uncover the common musical heritage we Afrikaans-speaking people share in this area.” In the mid-1990s van Heerden founded the “Gramadoelas” band and began his field research work in the rural areas of the Cape to get material for them. The project was not financially viable; nobody was ever interested in getting properly involved. Coming to work for the Trust has been a dream come true for van Heerden. Forty people are now directly involved in the music projects on the farm. Two bands, the Delta Optel and a brass band, meet regularly for practice. Van Heerden and historian Tracey Randle are collecting materials for a music heritage centre which is to open on the farm in 2010. Van Heerden is also in charge of the Saturday evening concerts which will begin in December. “I feel healed by making music with my people,” he says, clearly moved, “There is a feeling of unconditional sharing involved.”

Mark Solms with David Kramer

Mark Solms with David Kramer

Richard Astor knows that “all these great people on the farm can’t be a coincidence.” He says of his friend, “Mark brings out the best in people in a realistic way. He builds confidence and helps people realise their potentials.” The pool of talented individuals involved in the Solms Delta projects attests to this.

Cathy Macfarlane began as administrator at the farm in March 2007. A former teacher with no experience in administration, equipped only with vast enthusiasm, she swiftly adapted: “Working here has been an adventure. It’s tough at times, but I love my job.” As Solms Delta’s administrator, she coordinates all the entities on the farm, interviews new staff members (mostly appointed internally), and until recently was responsible for the certification of wine. Her latest projects are a fynbos reserve and “Fyndraai”, a restaurant which from December onwards will delight farm visitors with traditional Khoi cuisine based on the dedicated research of food scientist Renata Coetzee.

Tracey Randle was fresh out of university when she came to work at the farm in 2004. Finding vast amounts of artefacts during the renovations of Delta, Solms had an idea for a museum on the farm and employed Randle to direct it. A passionate historian, she shares his vision on how history can be told in a multitude of voices, an idea inspired by André Brink’s novel A Chain of Voices. In 2005, Brink was invited to open the Museum van de Caab which became one of the most sought after tourist attractions of the region. The Museum is unique in that it seeks to present history from individual perspectives of all the people who have ever lived, worked and died on the farm. There is no attribution of blame, just a display of the resilience of the human spirit.

In 2004, Medwin Pietersen and Johan O’Rayn came to work at the Delta as security guards, but both had a passion for history, which they have been given the opportunity to develop at the Museum and by completing heritage management courses. Later this month they will be travelling abroad for the first time in their lives on an exchange program to Sweden: “We’ll be visiting museums and schools in Malmö and learning how best to teach children about history, heritage and culture at school,” says Pietersen.

At home, Pietersen’s wife is one of the teachers involved in supervising the farm children in their after-school activities. The after school is an initiative coordinated by Frances Semmelink, a social worker employed by the Wijn de Caab Trust to represent all its beneficiaries. She began working for the Solms family as an au-pair while studying social work at the University of Stellenbosch. Recognising her potential, Mark Solms invited her to invest her skills in helping the Delta community after she completed her degree. Her focus is education: “It’s crucial that we break the cycle of poverty and dependency, so that children can move on if they wish to in the future.” By providing financial assistance for education on all levels, private health care and encouraging independent home ownership, the Trust aims at broadening the horizons for its beneficiaries. Semmelink coordinates various other projects, including all sports activities on the farm: a rugby team coached by the cellar manager, Fanie Karolus, a young basketball team led by a noted American player, Kyle Ray, and a walking team participating this month in the Big Walk in Cape Town. Semmelink knows that one has to remain “realistic about change, it’s a slow process,” but people see that it is real and that they are truly making a difference. “There is still drinking and domestic violence, but it’s on the decrease. The community realises that they have the power to control and stop things. They recognise their responsibility.” She adds with a confident smile, “People are happy.”

Even though he swore early on in life that he would never work on a farm, today Nico Jansen is the estate manager of Solms Delta. “Before, I used to work for a construction firm. I never believed in farming because it had broken my people, but now I love it.” He is proud of all the achievements on the farm. “People started taking care of themselves, they drink less. They feel that they can uplift themselves and restore their dignity,” he says. “Every week people come to me asking for work here, and it’s not about money. It’s about the respect and equality we all share here.”

The cycle of fatalism has been broken. People on Solms Delta know they are the masters of their future and that their fates are interlinked. “If you can transform one farm, why not a valley or a province?” asks Solms. What is he happiest with? Being greeted with a smile by every person on the farm and hearing the spontaneous eruptions of music on his daily walks. He explains, “Music is a genuine expression of pleasure and cultural participation.”

As I leave Solms Delta inspired by these stories, the voices of all the people fuse into the words of Theresé Willemse, a young woman working at the Museum van de Caab: “We are a whole big family here.”

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