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Solms-Delta Wine Estate farm owner Mark Solms

Fanie Jason for The Globe and Mail/fanie jason The Globe and Mail

When tourists descend on the idyllic vineyards of South Africa's gorgeous Cape region for a sampling of the local vintages, they rarely realize the truth: the wine estates were built on the misery of human slavery.

Even the antique bell towers dotted around the whitewashed Cape Dutch buildings are silent witnesses to the hidden history. The bells clanged for decades to summon the African and Indian slaves to their daily labour.

But now, in a country where farm workers are still often abused and mistreated, one winery has begun a land-reform project that seeks justice for the descendants of the slaves. It has become one of the most intriguing social experiments of South Africa's post-apartheid era.

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The horrific reality of nearly two centuries of slavery is concealed today by a façade of bucolic villages, French oak barrels, stunning landscapes and gourmet cuisine. The winelands have become a major draw for tourists.

But one landowner, Mark Solms, decided to expose what really happened in the Cape. In his historic wine cellar, the same place where 18th-century slaves were once whipped in punishment, he and his partners created a museum to document the slave legacy.

"I'm trying to counteract the picture-postcard view," says Mr. Solms, a Namibia-born psychoanalyst and neuroscientist at the University of Cape Town who acquired his estate in the famed Franschhoek Valley in 2002.

"Slavery was absolutely fundamental to the working and building of all these farms, and we're still living with the consequences today," he says. "The owners are always rich and white, and the workers are poor and brown, and that stems from the slavery."

Mr. Solms points to the oriental flourishes in the moulding of the gables in the Cape Dutch buildings. "There's a very direct link between slavery and the most cherished aspects of Cape Dutch architecture – it has the influence of the East Indies," he says.

Slaves were first brought to the Cape from West Africa and the Dutch East Indies in the middle of the 17th century. So many thousands of slaves were shipped in that they soon outnumbered the white settlers. By the time slavery was finally abolished here in 1838, an estimated 63,000 slaves had been imported.

Even after they were freed, farm workers were often controlled by a crude system that exchanged wine for labour, maintaining them in a state of alcohol dependency. Apartheid followed in the 20th century, keeping the workers oppressed. Today, the Cape farm workers are among the poorest paid in the country, often relegated to uninhabitable housing, without electricity or water, vulnerable to eviction and exposed to unsafe pesticides.

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The museum created by Mr. Solms attracted 30,000 visitors last year, up by 40 per cent from the previous year. But not everyone is happy with it. Some winery owners resent his challenge to the pastoral stereotypes. Solms-Delta Estate is left off the guided tours of many European travel agencies, which believe that their tourists would rather see the French influences in the region.

"They think I'm spoiling the party," Mr. Solms says. "They don't want to know about slavery and apartheid."

In an industry dominated by low wages and exploitation, Mr. Solms was determined to build one of South Africa's most progressive wineries, where the dispossessed would be given an equal share of the ownership.

But when he purchased the farm and eagerly described his ideas to the farm workers, they were sullen and silent. "I came with great enthusiasm that we were going to fix this piece of South Africa," he remembers. "I was met with resistance and inertia and apathy. I felt the impossibility of communicating. I didn't understand it – I just knew it was horrible."

Drawing on his psychoanalysis expertise and his studies of dreams, he sat with the workers and listen. He eventually concluded that the apathy and indolence were a result of the slavery legacy itself, and of the "messiah" attitude of white landowners such as him. "They had no hope for the future," he says. "You have to look at your own complicity in it."

Mr. Solms and a partner, Richard Astor, merged their neighbouring estates and purchased a third farm. They transferred their equity into a trust, giving a one-third stake to their 180 farm workers and residents. Profits from Solms-Delta estate, which produces 30,000 cases of wine annually under labels such as Cape Jazz and Africana, allow the workers and tenants to pay for health care, school fees, and a social worker to tackle issues of alcoholism and domestic violence.

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Mr. Solms also hired historians to identify the original slaves and research their genealogy. And he hired archeologists to study the site's 7,000-year history. They found intricate Stone Age tools that belonged to the indigenous Khoisan people whose descendants are still among the workers on the farm today.

All of this, he says, is a natural extension of his expertise in psychoanalysis and the belief that "digging up the past" can be beneficial to human healing. "Denying truths can't work," he says.

The workers and tenants say the Solms project has transformed their lives. "He has changed everything on this farm," says Medwin Pietersen, a 31-year-old descendant of slaves who was born on the farm and now serves as its "brand ambassador" at international wine shows.

He remembers using candles and outhouses in the decrepit housing of the past. Now the workers have electricity, running water and even satellite television. "My whole life has changed dramatically," he says. "One day – and it will come – I will go to Mark and thank him for everything he has done for me."

One of the benefits of the reform project, Mr. Solms says, is that it actually produces better wine. "It makes for a fantastic corporate environment," he says.

"Wine is made by hand, and the attitude of the labourers affects what's in the bottle, from the way they tend the vines and select the grapes. If someone is preparing it with resentment and hatred, what will he make?"

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Workers at other Cape wineries, learning about the Solms-Delta project, have asked for similar reforms. Some of their employers have been angered or embarrassed by the Solms example, but others have agreed to bring their workers into management positions.

Sanna Malgas, a 45-year-old who has lived on the farm since 1980, remembers how she and other employees were required to work outdoors under all conditions, even when they were sick or when it was heavily raining. "I didn't want this to happen to my kids," she says. "It was amazing that Mark came here."

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