South Africa produces some of the finest wines in the world. But the people who do the hard work of growing and harvesting the grapes aren’t always treated with world-class care. One winery has set out to change the status quo from the ground up.

South Africa’s wine has long been the nectar of gods and kings. But it’s drunk from a chalice that was poisoned from the start.

The industry traces its history back to the arrival of the first European settlers at the Cape, who began cultivating vines shortly after they stepped ashore on 6 April, 1652, under the command of Jan van Riebeeck, who was probably the best-known servant of the East India Company. 

After a false start or two, van Riebeeck finally claimed success in his famous diary entry of 2 February, 1659, “Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.”

A hundred and fifty or so years later, the country’s (then) best-known dessert wine, Vin de Constance, which is still available today, had become a favourite of the royal courts of Europe, so much so that the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, brought 300 gallons of the stuff with him to St. Helena, where he lived out his days as a prisoner of the British, and demanded a glass of it — and nothing else, mind — on his death bed. 

While stories of fame and glory, which is great for marketing, help to build the image of South African wines, they also hide a more nuanced and tragic history of slavery, exploitation, and even forced dependence on the product amongst the people who do the work of farming the grapes.

The first vines were planted and tended by slaves

According to (Bitter grapes? Slavery, labour, and memory in the Cape winelands), some 60,000 slaves lived at the Cape in the period to 1834, when England, which had seized control of the Cape Colony in 1806, banned the practice. 

At times outnumbering their European masters, slaves were brought here from as far afield as East Asia, the Indian Ocean Islands, and even Mozambique; and, since wine quickly became one of the pillars of the local economy, many of them were made to serve — and were born and died in slavery — on the ever-expanding vineyards of the region. 

Conditions improved very little for wine farm labourers in the years following 1834. Amongst other things, many farmers paid them via the dop-stelsel (tot system), in which workers received part or all of their wages in alcohol. And while the system was banned by the government in the 1960s, ineffective enforcement ensured that the practice continued until well into the ’90s and beyond, despite the election of the country’s first democratic government in 1994. In fact, one report claimed that the dop-stelsel was still in use on at least two farms as late as 2011 (Human Rights Watch – Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries).

The cumulative effects of these years of abuse on the one hand, and viticultural success on the other, have, as Graham Knox puts it, created a “massive chasm between the haves and the have-nots in the wine industry.”

Graham is a founder of The Township Winery, and a man whose pedigree in wine extends back to the ’60s. He is Australian by birth, he wrote Asia’s first ever wine column, and, after emigrating to South Africa, published the first guides to the country’s wine routes, and founded the first advertising agency for the beverages industry.

The Cape’s ‘fertile crescent’ ignores the poor

Living in Cape Town, though, Graham realised that the Peninsula’s prestigious wine-producing regions, whose vineyards belong predominantly to white people, lie in what he calls a “fertile crescent” that, from west to east, includes Constantia, Durbanville, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Somerset West). The crescent surrounds a central block of townships, South African usage for low-income, mostly black and coloured residential areas.

“The fertile crescent ignores the two- to two-and-a-half million impoverished people in the middle, in Khayelitsha, Mitchell’s Plain, Delft, Hanover Park, Gugulethu, and Crossroads,” he said. 

Despite the fact that the people living in these areas come from the same population categories from which most of the labour force is drawn — some 60% of the 300,000 workers in the country’s wine industry come from the coloured and black groups, although black people fall into the minority here — Graham said that financial and social barriers make it almost impossible for people in these communities to access the culture of wine. This is a tragedy because of the potential economic and social benefits, and the benefits that come from growing your own crops, and because much of the land on which those people live is potentially ideal for vines. 

“Not only were black people not allowed to own land and grow vines until the late 1960s, it was illegal for black people to drink wine, to go to a shop and buy wine and take it home. As a result, there’s no wine culture in their communities. 

“In countries like Spain and Italy, where there is a strong wine culture, there are people who grow vines, so it’s part of the local economic system. Here, although we have two-and-a-half million impoverished township people who’re surrounded by vineyards, they are without a relationship to them.

“This I see as a mistake for the Western Cape. It can’t be sustainable in the long-term, so in my small way I’ve attempted to do something about it.”

His solution was to create The Township Winery in 2009, a “non-elite winery, owned and staffed by a different culture” that exists to assist in the reintroduction of vineyards to the Cape Flats, according to the company’s web site,

“In 2010, The Township Winery concept was revealed on a homespun website, and was spotted by Virgin Wines in the United Kingdom, who commissioned the first wines. After that, the Philippi soils were analysed for suitability and found to be pH neutral, perfect for vineyards, and the first Cape Flats vines in 70 years were planted in 2011.”

Graham said he, “sought out market gardeners, who do exist in the townships — genetically oriented farmers who like growing things: you’ll find them in every community around the world. Maybe 20 to 25 percent of the population have this bent; they like getting their hands dirty and growing things, but they sometimes go all their lives without ever realising it. 

“And so I’ve helped to establish several vineyards in market gardens in Khayelitsha, Philippi and Gugulethu.” 

Graham has worked with “about seven individuals who’ve managed to grow vines,” but said that one of their greatest challenges has been accessing training in cultivation, pruning, pest control, and so on. 

“The training is available, but the centres that offer it are in Stellenbosch and Paarl, and one of the tragedies of the black townships is the severe shortage of transport. There are taxis, but their routes don’t make getting to training easy at all.”

The craft of winemaking “doesn’t have to happen in a mansion”

Graham’s philosophy is clearly stated on the company’s site: “A craft does not take a lot of money to learn and perfect. It doesn’t have to happen in a mansion. The communities of Nyanga, Khayelitsha and Philippi know that the wine craft is a simple as any other. They have proved that growing and caring for vines is no more difficult than tending other plants. They also know that wine can be made and cared for with sensitivity and hygiene in a shed, in the way that thousands of garageistes make wine at home all over the world.”

Now, using a mix of grapes grown by its partners and grapes they buy in, the winery manufactures a selection of products that includes:

With customers in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, and, in South Africa, the Salsa chain in the Gauteng, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces, plus a number of five-star restaurants and neighbourhood Spar supermarkets and Tops outlets in Cape Town, The Township Winery is set to enter its second decade with plans to extend its vineyards, which it intends to plant in unused land on school properties, and in other market gardens, with grapes as just one among a selection of crops.

Above all, though, it intends to continue to foster the culture of cultivation in an area so desperately short of food, and short of its means of production.

Learn about historic conditions on one local wine farm bu visiting Solms Delta’s Museum van de Caab

Learn the stories of the indigenous and slave people who have lived and worked at Solms Delta, a historic farm established in the 1740s, at this unique museum 39 km from Easy Five via the R44 and the Helshoogte Road)

The museum is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; entry is free of charge. More info:

The Story of The Township Winery from Township Winery on Vimeo.

Featured image: Olga Ernst. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.