- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

PAARL, South Africa - Even when wine farmer Alan Nelson relaxes in the shade under one of the many acacia trees on his estate near Paarl in Cape province, he seems eager to know what is happening around him.

A lawyer by training and grape farmer by preference, Mr. Nelson dedicates his time to wine. Descended from an upper-class white family in Johannesburg, he always dreamed of owning a vineyard and making wine.

“When apartheid was brought to an end in 1994 and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I wondered what I could really contribute to this racially divided country. I needed to find an answer, and think I did. Whites fled the country fearing it would fall apart. It needed new, positive thinking and reconstruction,” he said looking out at the hills of his country property.

He came up with enough money to buy a 325-acre wine estate and invited black farmers — whose ancestors had tilled the same land under conditions tantamount to slavery — to partner with him.

They had never heard of a white man who wanted to share his land and wealth with them. They picked wine grapes all of their lives and were partly paid in wine. Getting drunk, and sometimes beating their women and children, was part of their way of life.

“[Banning] that form of payment was one of the first rules we established,” said Mr. Nelson. “But even after sobering up, they were suspicious and reluctant to discuss my plans. At first they did not comprehend the importance of their participating in the peace and reconciliation process of our country. They didn’t trust me, nor think they could play an important role.”

But Victor Titus, a man of mixed race, quickly understood the opportunity to show South Africa and the rest of the world that change was possible: This project could set an example for a new South Africa with room and opportunities for everybody in a country that could end the trade boycotts and rejoin the world.

“I told the workers that the deal was valid and what it was all about; that it would take a long time and sometimes could be difficult, but that they would get 25 hectares of prime land and become the first blacks to own land in this country. That they would get money to start their own wine business, buy their own farm equipment, use state-of-the-art wine technology, and get all the moral support and know-how they would need for success.

“We called the project ‘Klein Beginnings’ — Afrikaans for small beginning. I also told them they would no longer be paid in wine,” Mr. Titus said.

Since then, the black farmers have managed their wine business with remarkable success. They put a lot of time and effort into the project and increased farm productivity. Alcoholism has been reduced substantially, and workers who were illiterate learned to read and write to be able to communicate with the outside world.

Black farmworkers on neighboring wine farms became jealous. Some white farmers condemned Mr. Nelson’s initiative and predicted his winery would fail. They were proved wrong, and many now are trying to copy him. Some have followed his example and tentatively divided their farms with their black farmhands.

Sollie Skippers, a black farmer who had learned that whites couldn’t be trusted, is a proud landowner now. Sitting on his new tractor, he said it still seems like a dream.

“I don’t think my parents would be able to understand. I am so proud of what is happening here: Me — Sollie — master of my own destiny.” He laughed out loud, glowing with pride.

He suggested we look around and notice the difference between the Klein Beginnings lands and those of the neighbors. He remembers that when the project started, the black farmers needed to earn money fast and started to plant red onions and potatoes in the vineyard.

They soon recognized their error and began to educate themselves about the differences between red and white wines, the cabernet sauvignons, pinot noirs and merlots or pinotages.

“Pinot noir is the king of our burgundy wines,” Mr. Skippers said. “It’s a wine that flourishes here in South Africa and is conquering the world now.”

Not far from where Mr. Nelson relaxes under the shade of his acacia trees, near his swimming pool in front of his mansion, is a row of smaller houses where the black farmers live and worship.

One of the farmers, Jannie, smiles from ear to ear as he shows a wine bottle carrying the Klein Beginnings label. It features a picture of two black owners of a wine farm, the first in the new South Africa.

“This label goes all over the world,” he said, “but we seldom drink it ourselves as a way to thank Mr. Nelson — a man with a vision.”

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