I still haven’t got round to telling you how we came to be tending vines and making wine. I have, it seems, been meandering along a self-indulgently autobiographical path.
Here is the fourth installment of ‘How we Came to Swim in the Wine Lake’ or ‘How Green was My Vineyard’ (with apologies to Richard Llewellyn).
Vigorous and well constructed.
‘Holism,’ In wine making, is obviously a lot more than the romantic concept of growing and making beautiful wine that expresses it’s origin and has a carefully managed environmental impact. Holistic means addressing the wine value chain in its entirety – it starts with the owners and the wine-maker and their shared philosophy, ranging from the sustainable and appropriate use and maintenance of land, through the viticultural and wine-making processes employed, right up till the bottle finds itself on your table. Obviously our history, experiences, values, principles and aesthetics permeate every aspect of the process.
I’ve looked over the previous three ‘chapters’ that I’ve written about the years preceding our becoming involved in the world of wine. Considering that I spent so many years in the worlds of education and development, I thought it appropriate to relate an episode which was an important learning experience for me, and which should have cautioned us against charging into dangerous arenas.
Allow me to take you back to 1990 when we were young, certain and had all the answers – even to questions we’d never heard of. Hugh Mclean had joined us as manager in the Liberty Foundation. Other than having a deep intellect and thorough understanding of education, Hugh had the dubious distinction of having been chucked out of the Republic of Bophutatswana by the Mangope regime for his seditious activities. Hugh is one of the nicest, and most quietly seditious, men in the world.
We set about trying to do things properly. We were naively scathing about most corporate responses to the socio-political and developmental challenges facing the country – in retrospect, I must admit we were a little harsh. We had a solution for every problem and the energy to implement them. We wrestled enthusiastically with the paradigm, Quixotic even … was the correct approach to take a Gramscian or a Marxist one? I, quite frankly, have now forgotten the difference, am not sure what difference the difference would have made, and can now confess to never really getting Foucault in the first place.
Magala Ngatane, was the other crucial cog in our machine. She was like the girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid… Makgala spent fully half of her time at Liberty boycotting me … now that the struggle was ending I became Makgala’s victim. I, it appears, personified the colonial oppressor. Being a bit Antjie-Krogesque at the time, victimhood suited me. The guilt … the angst … the amount of crap I took.
Those were heady days indeed. So many projects and so much money to spend. If you recall, we had to spend R 100 million and it’s interest plus our income from the Liberty Group, over the next 5 years.
We had become increasingly focused on pre-school education or ‘early learning’. The fact that Nick and Matt were of that age naturally had nothing to do with the objective focusing of my mind on early childhood development. I was testing the theory at the office and getting the ‘pracs’ at home.
In the fullness of time (more like a few months to be totally frank), we came up with a solution to the problem of pre-school education in South Africa – well, for the whole developing world actually. There was nothing small about our thinking. We consulted with Gerry Salole at Van Leer Foundation in The Hague (Gerry was, and remains, an extraordinary resource in the field). Hugh developed huge expertise rapidly – I’m not even being ironic. Hugh’s now running the world with George Soros. He was stolen from us by Soros’ OSI and whisked off to Budapest where he became fluent in Hungarian in no time.
Then there were Ginny Rickards and Ann Short and a number of other experts in early learning. All, it seemed, shared a profound understanding of the subject and a deep dislike for each other. The politics of the early-education field baffled me, but Hugh smiled his way through it all.
Finally we decided that we wanted a modular preschool … prefabricated even, if possible. Pop it on a truck and erect it. I had endured many years of my schooling at a common-and-garden government school in so-called “prefabs” (I still wonder whether there was asbestos in them). Someone recommended a very talented young architect named Kim Fairbairn and he, with Hugh, designed the cleverest most thought-through preschool in the world.
As I saw it, we could have fleets of trucks, preferably painted Liberty blue, delivering modular preschools to the remotest parts of the country. It all seemed so easy.
Eventually, after Hugh had been in endless consultation with ‘the community,’ the first preschool was due to be erected near Warmbaths, now called Bela Bela. (Name changes! Whilst I’m delighted to see the Hendrik Verwoerds and DF Malans consigned to the trash heap of history, I can’t for one moment understand why we want the expense of changing Nelspruit to something no tourist will ever be able to pronounce or remember. Mr Nel and his little stream (sounds like Urology 101) weren’t exactly apartheid’s greatest monsters. And ‘warm baths?’ What could be objectionable about a hot bath?).
Anyway, after endless negotiations the community eventually decided to welcome our money, and ultimately our preschool. Hugh had arranged teacher training and sourced the best materials. We were smart. We had thought of everything.
We then encountered the first little stumbling block. The community didn’t want us to build the school. They wanted to do it themselves. “Ah”, we said, enthused with the spirit of liberation, “the community must decide for themselves … this is empowerment.” So we paid for building materials and for labour …. In retrospect, the community must have seen us coming from a thousand paces. We supplied enough sand, cement, bricks and whatever for half the village to be renovated.
Anyway, the school’s finally up and running. The teachers trained and enthusiastic (oh for those days) and we take in the first children.
A few days pass and the first call comes “the children are hungry. We learned in our training that you can’t teach hungry children” (PC jargon – this was post “student” but pre “learner.” Whatever happened to pupils?). Naturally I responded immediately: “tell them to organize feeding the kids.” We were delighted. There we were … actually practicing holistic development. (The greatest privilege of corporate life is having lots of ‘thems’ … there are ‘thems’ to do everything).
So, we (or rather, they) arranged to feed the kids. Hunger was assuaged and learning continued. Days passed.
The next call comes. “The brothers and sisters are also hungry.” Obviously we can’t turn hungry children away … so we “tell them to feed the siblings too.” We’re now effectively funding a feeding scheme at the school which we’re funding. This is holistic development at work!
The next call comes “we learned in our training that the mother must be involved in the child’s education.” Yes! “But the mothers or ‘gogos’ (grannies) who are looking after the kids are illiterate.” Well, it’s obvious isn’t it. A holistic approach to development says “tell them to organize literacy lessons.” Now our chests are puffed up at our brilliance … we are transforming society and using our preschool to feed the hungry and enlighten the illiterate.
Soon the teachers and now partially literate mothers and grannies call: “we want to plant a food garden.” Awesome! Now this is rural development, with a holistic slant, as it should be. “Tell them to go ahead.” We buy wheelbarrows and implements … seed and fertilizer (in my pre-organic agriculture days) … The next call comes “there’s no water.” Simple really. “tell them to organize water.”
A borehole is duly sunk and the problem solved. Unfortunately no one alerted us now-experts in rural development that water, a scarce commodity in many communities, has economic value. The call comes “the tsotsis (thugs) have taken the borehole and are selling the water.” I don’t recall where we found the ‘them’ to remove the bad guys. But we did.
The water makes the plants grow and tranquility returns. The call comes. “The goats are eating the vegetables.” “Okay … tell them to fence the school.” All is well in our now peaceful little valley where every day is Christmas….
Now comes the next call “the mothers want loans to buy sewing machines …”
I call our people together. These were the days of painfully slow IBM PCs and Lotus 123. I have a spreadsheet open … “Okay”, I say “this holistic development … where does it go? We’ve 150 kids in a preschool. We’re feeding them, training their mothers and getting involved in micro-enterprise ….. what’s next?”
“Well, the primary school’s terrible. We must sort it out. Teachers, materials … buildings everything.” “Okay”, I respond. “And then? Hmmmm”, “the high school’s terrible. They share it with another village” …. “hmmmm, (I’m a big ‘hmmmmer’ it seems) the primary school has how many kids?” I ask. “About 700” is the answer. And the high school has about the same ….
“What happens next?” is my logical question. “Bursaries …. All the kids must be able to fulfill their potential.” Considering there are no tertiary training institutions anywhere nearby, this means residential accommodation. So I say “bursaries means tuition and residence. But how do the kids live? These are kids from the middle of nowhere.” “Allowances … they must be able to integrate into student life so they’ll need running shoes and jeans and transport ……”
I return to the question of the loans to buy sewing machines, “and their families?” The not unexpected answer “we must provide microfinance …. And training ….”
I had been feeding all this into the spreadsheet …. We would be responsible for a preschool, a primary school and a high school. Each year for the foreseeable future we would have about 150 kids coming out of the high school and would have to underwrite their residential tertiary education …. And lend their families money … The computer whirred and ground away for an age and eventually returned a number. Donny had built his business on an understanding of the meaning of compounding …. This one preschool, taken to its ‘logical’ conclusion would have been a billion-rand undertaking.
“Okay” I said (I also use ‘okay’ a lot) … we can’t afford this holistic approach. We’ve got to know where it ends before we start it.”
Wise words. Had I heeded them we probably wouldn’t be making wine.