Social History of the Grape Questions Why We Pursue Fruit of the Vine

Article excerpt

Jeanne Viall, Wilmot James & Jakes Gerwel


South Africans have been making wine for more than 350 years, a statistic often trotted out when our products are compared with the so-called Old World wines of France.

But who do we refer to when we say "South Africans"?

Journalist Jeanne Viall and academics Wilmot James and Jakes Gerwel have collaborated on what they describe as a South African "social history of the grape", a story that covered "all the people of the vine".

It is an ambitious undertaking and the result is a necessary book.

The adage most used when advising people wishing to own a wine farm asks the question: "How do you become a millionaire?" And the answer is: "You spend a billion on a wine farm and within three years, you will be reduced to being a millionaire."

Throughout Grape, the question is raised as to why, given the precarious nature of viniculture, do we continue to pursue it? The Dean of the Faculty of AgriScience at the University of Stellenbosch, Professor Mohammad Karaan, interviewed by the authors, explains: "It is an ego-based industry where the rich come and play."

Yet, as the authors are at pains to point out, it was not always so. A case in point is the story of Ansela van der Caab, a former slave who married a German soldier, Lourens Camphor, in the late 1600. Their farm, granted in 1699, was on the land that is now Muratie and formed part of neighbouring Delheim. Ansela and Lourens were successful but not prosperous wine farmers, and eventually sold the farm.

Grape dips into the practice of slavery - which since before the Romans, no known economy had functioned without - and wades through the plight of the free slaves, through the periods of colonialism and apartheid to today's uneasy dispute about land reform, labour and urbanisation. …