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Coming to terms with the tot system's hangover

Vineyards in the Breede River Valley
(Lee Middleton )

For centuries, South African wine farm workers were paid partly in alcohol in what was known as the "dop" or tot system; although outlawed in the 1960s, it was widely practiced until well after the advent of democracy in 1994.

Post-apartheid implementation of the anti-dop legislation has pretty much called time on it, but ending a practice endemic to the region's social and economic culture has not been without consequences.

"You have laws that reflect an imagined society - in which workers don't get paid with alcohol, in which children under 15 are in school and don't work, and in which there is a standard wage - but there hasn't been enough imagination or will to make them work," Susan Levine, a children's rights researcher and lecturer at the University of Cape Town (UCT), told IRIN.

Enforcement of the dop ban was linked to pro-poor legislation, preventing child labour and setting a minimum wage. "All those things together have meant that farm workers are now buying liquor with their very small wage. In addition to taking children out of the workforce, the overall household income is plummeting even more in relation to the fact that they now have to buy liquor," Levine said.

"So there is a problem of hunger on farms, and it's directly related - not to the end of the dop system, per se - but the lack of social engineering to support what should be a good piece of legislation."

Thank goodness it's Friday, or maybe not

It is 4 p.m. on a Friday in Rawsonville, a small town in the heart of the Western Cape Province's wine farming region, and queues are already forming outside alcohol outlets.

"[Two bars and three bottle stores] - that's a lot of alcohol for a small town. Where there's alcohol, there's a lot of fighting; and when parents drink, they don't look after kids, and kids go hungry," said Charlotte Moses, who works in a gift shop at the Fairhills Association, the fair trade cooperative association of wine producers.

The Fairhills Association is a joint venture between Origin Wine, Du Toitskloof Winery and its worker community. There are 22 participating farms, organised through the Du Toitskloof Winery and the international distributor, Origin Wines.

''People drink on credit, and then there's no money for the wife to buy food and clothes for the kids''

"People drink on credit, and then there's no money for the wife to buy food and clothes for the kids," Rose, who lives in De Nova, a township on the outskirts of Rawsonville, told IRIN.

Gerrie Jonk, head of the family welfare NGO, Afrikaanse Christelike Vroue Vereniging (ACVV), in the nearby town of Robertson, told IRIN: "Children are left at home alone with no food, or babies will get sugar water and tea. Drunken parents are not looking after children, who wander around. Rape is common."


The Western Cape's Department of Social Development said there was no available research on the social impact of the demise of the dop system, although the Medical Research Council estimated alcohol dependence at 31 percent in the region, 10 percent higher than the national average.

In 2008 an initiative by the department's Substance Abuse Directorate in Cape Town began training 140 farm workers from 70 farms as lay-counsellors to deal with substance abuse, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS on farms, and provide an appropriate referral mechanism.

Government had "amended a few laws, [like] the one regulating the availability of alcohol, but I don't think it's enough," said Petrus Theron, director of the state-subsidised Ramot Treatment Centre for alcohol and drug dependency in Cape Town.

"They should really target alcohol as a primary substance of abuse. The whole society targets illicit drugs - heroin, cocaine, tik [methamphetamine] - and that's quite right, but in the process we've not really exposed alcohol for what it is, and I think government should take a leading role in that."

Levine commented: "Ultimately it's not the government's responsibility - [intervention] has to be a negotiated relationship between farmers, landowners, and wine distributors."

Bursaries instead of dop

Tienie Smith inherited the family farm from his father two decades ago and immediately ended the dop system. Some workers quit, but now only two of his staff of 12 drink. Three years ago he joined Fairhills.

''For a worker to go [to rehab] is their own choice - you can't tell them they must stop - but to work with them every day and talk to them, that's something you can do''

"For a worker to go [to rehab] is their own choice - you can't tell them they must stop - but to work with them every day and talk to them, that's something you can do," Smith told IRIN.

The cooperative has established three children's daycare centres, paid for by its farmer members, and other projects are in progress.

Gary Baumgarten, general manager of Graham Beck Wine Estates in Robertson, a nearby town, told IRIN the estate transported children to school for free, subsidised boarding school costs, had established a centre offering skills training from welding to administration, and offered tertiary education bursaries.

"We train people to be able to use that training in their job, and there's a lot of people in this industry doing great things with their people," Baumgarten said. "You've got to treat people humanely at the end of the day - that's from top to bottom."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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