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Wine Farm Work


‘Have you always worked hard in your life?’ I asked Drieka on the first day I filmed her. She was on her knees in the Cape Dutch farmhouse bathroom, about to lift the rim of my toilet seat to wipe beneath it with a blue and white dishcloth.

‘No, not really,’ she replied.

I focused on her hands, distrustful of my Afrikaans.

She finished cleaning in silence, then stood and moved to the wicker laundry basket. I stopped recording at that point, just before she asked me if I had anything else I wanted washed.

My Afrikaans improved. Drieka began to talk to me without prompting, and most of what she said I understood. I filmed her making the bed I’d been sleeping in, opening the sliding door onto the pool patio, shaking out my duvet, billowing it in the winter sunshine. She moved from one side of the bed to the other, making neat envelope corners of the sheet to slot beneath the mattress.

‘Of course I used to drink,’ Drieka said. ‘My father drank, my mother drank, the father of my children drank. We have a choice – a cup of Oros or a cup of wine – at the curry and rice night, and now I pick Oros. It’s why they gave me this job, in the farmhouse. Everybody wanted it, to get out of the vineyards. And I got it.’

‘What about your kids’ father?’ I ask.

‘He drives the school bus, helps a friend at the vegetable market in Paarl, runs a nightclub.’

‘I mean, is he still in your life?’

‘The way I live now, I live as husband and wife – I’m the husband and I’m the wife. A lot of people ask me when I’m going to find myself another man, and I say to them, have you seen my oldest son? That’s my guy.’

I showed Drieka some footage I’d shot for my documentary on another farm further from Cape Town, of a worker telling me what was wrong with her house, the home she was expected to clean up to show she was responsible before the farm owner would build her a new one. Drieka found it funny how she rolled her Rs and wanted me to replay the part where she said, ‘Missus, the most important thing is the door,’ while she swung the door back and forth on its one attached hinge. The few things she had were placed on cereal box cut-outs; a child’s picture was stuck to the smoky wall. Drieka laughed and asked me to rewind it. She watched it closely, then said the door of her house used to look like that, back when the boss was still in charge. ‘How old do you think she is?’ she asked me.

‘Maybe thirty-five?’ I was thinking closer to forty.

Drieka liked that. ‘It’s the alcohol. She’s probably nineteen. Like a grape becomes a raisin.’ She laughed again, the tip of her tongue in the gap where her front teeth should have been. I knew by then her teeth were missing intentionally, had noticed the other women listening in amusement while Drieka explained to me why she called it her passion gap. ‘How old am I?’

I hesitated.

This too made her smile. ‘Don’t look so scared,’ she said. ‘I told you, I don’t drink any more. And my mother says our Bushman blood keeps us young. I’m thirty-five. But I look nineteen!’

I filmed a meeting of the Workers’ Trust Committee, to which Drieka had been elected. The men sat on one side of the cold school hall and the women on the other. The farm company’s representative suggested that the workers organize a talent contest for the children, something to celebrate the release of their new community-owned wine label. The foreman, Drieka’s father, protested, saying that the children already did too much dancing, that they were always dancing, that the women must do sports with them instead.

‘Why don’t you set up a sports day, then?’ the company representative asked.

‘I don’t want more responsibility,’ Drieka’s father replied. ‘If I must organize this sports day then I won’t work as foreman any more!’

‘Just get the men to work together with you,’ the company representative said.

‘It’s not like that,’ said Drieka’s father. ‘The men don’t work together like the women do, whoever is in charge gets lumped with all the work, whenever there’s something to be done then this one’s got a sore foot, this one’s got a sore leg.’

Drieka waited until the company representative had drunk his coffee and left. ‘The women don’t stick together,’ she said to her father. ‘It’s me and Lily who do all the work.’

The talent contest turned into a Miss Moffie contest, a chance for all the little boys on the farm to dress up in their sisters’ clothes and have their mothers fuss over them with eye-shadow wands and fat tubes of lipstick. Drieka put on a cassette tape in her kitchen one afternoon and had the boys parade before her and some of the other women to practise their struts and turns and blow kisses to win over an imaginary crowd. Her father slammed the door to his room.

‘Is it because they’re pretending to be moffies?’ I asked, a little shocked myself at the encouragement the women were giving their sons to be camp.

‘No,’ Drieka said, laughing at me. ‘He doesn’t like Atomic Kitten.’

Drieka told me that her father had agreed to me filming him washing out the wine barrels before dawn, even though he no longer did that kind of work as foreman. In rubber gumboots and overalls, he balanced on overturned barrels like a circus performer, leapt from one to the next across the cellar holding a hose, and landed in a blood-coloured puddle spreading on the cement floor. He climbed into a huge metal vat with the hose and a waterproofed lamp which he hung from the inside of the structure, and sprayed the inner walls. I was hungry for breakfast, felt queasy smelling stale wine.

My Afrikaans had abandoned me overnight, leaving behind nothing but a thick tongue. I walked dumbly behind him as he left the cellar and moved into the vineyards at first light, to the sound of chirping frogs.

He took pity on me. ‘You see here, the oats and clover we are growing between our vines,’ he said slowly in Afrikaans. ‘We make organic wine.’

‘The community owns these?’ I asked. I wasn’t sure I’d understood him.

‘Yes, we use the grapes from these vines to make wine for our community’s label. We used to have ducks to eat the snails but then somebody started to eat the ducks. Now we collect the snails and the company sells them to people to eat.’

‘Why are there rose bushes at the end of each—?’

‘Row? It is so the horses would turn properly without crushing them, in the time before the tractor.’

‘What are you going to do now?’ I asked, hoping he would say he was ready to return home.

‘I am going to put in some stakes.’

I liked the sound the wooden pale made as he hammered it into the soil. I wondered if I could leave him to work in peace.

He stopped to rest and pointed at a tree beside the farm’s small reservoir. ‘The fink tell us what kind of winter it will be. If they build their nests high in that branch hanging over the water, there will be a lot of rain. If they build it lower down, there will be less rain.’

‘You know the farm well,’ I said.

‘Of course. My grandparents used to stay here, and my great-grandparents.’

‘Did your great-grandparents know any stories from the days of slavery?’ I asked.

He didn’t know.

On the day the vineyard workers were given pairs of shears to prune away dead tendrils and leaves from the company’s rows of vines, Drieka’s father said I could shadow him again. It was misty and wet, and he wore a bright yellow raincoat with the community’s wine logo printed on the pocket as he walked up and down the rows. One of the young women working nearby was humming to herself, the same six sweet notes over and over.

‘Can I ask you about the old system?’ I said, knowing Drieka had already asked him on my behalf.

‘This is how it used to be,’ he replied. ‘Instead of money, we got a tot of brandy at six in the morning, at eight, at eight-thirty, at eleven, at noon, at twelve-thirty, at four, and at six at night.’

‘Were there other – benefits?’ I asked.

‘We were given a roof over our head and clothes, food on the weekend. If the boss fired us, we called it emptying the house – do you understand?’

‘You called it emptying the house.’

‘Now, we are told we are bigger than children and must stand on our own two feet. We own our houses. When the company first bought the farm from the boss, we couldn’t understand what it was, a company. We asked the company representative, sir, this thing you’re telling us about, this company, is it a ghost? Because he always said it was something that you couldn’t see or touch.’

‘Is there anything you miss, from before?’ Subtle transitions were beyond my grasp.

He was quiet, walked with his hands in the pockets of his raincoat to the end of one row, around the rose bush, into the next. I held my breath, felt my right shoulder muscle aching from the weight of the videocamera.

‘When Drieka was born, it was the middle of the night. It was the boss who drove my wife and me to the hospital.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘My Afrikaans is rusty. I didn’t mean it like that. I can see that things are better.’

‘We had a clean-up competition of our own,’ he said. ‘A few years ago, after the empowerment. My grandson embarrassed me. He challenged the company’s farm manager when he came to our house to judge it. He said to him – we want to make our house clean, but how can we? Where else can we throw our rubbish but here in the bushes?’

At the Worcester bottling plant, Drieka’s son’s job was to check each bottle of wine as it came off the assembly line to make sure that the gilded label was not on skew. I almost missed my chance to speak to him in private during the tea break, mesmerized by filming the corks being plunged mechanically into each bottle and the black foil sleeves as they were slotted over the necks and heated until sealed.

He did not smile when I approached him, let me squirm for a while in silence after my first question. I switched off my camera, replaced the lens cap.

‘You must hear the crap these people talk,’ he said quietly. ‘They say – we are bringing the farm workers into the boardroom. All those years, they said, don’t think, just work. Now they tell us, think for yourselves.’

‘Is that better or worse?’

‘For me? I can flush my own shit down the toilet now. What do you think?’

‘Drieka says the company is paying for you to take a wine tasting course,’ I said. ‘She says you want to show her you can get better work than she could.’

‘Stand like a farmer in the land with a spade,’ he said. ‘That, I don’t want.’

I drove to one of the oldest Stellenbosch vineyards to film Drieka’s son carrying trays of wine bottles at a competition. Aproned middle-aged men sat in cubicles tasting glass after glass of wine poured and served by him and other farm workers on the course. At lunch, I was caught in a conversation with one of the judges, talking rugby. I told him I played on a touch rugby team.

‘So it’s true, you need only one ball to play rugby,’ he teased. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, seeing my reaction. ‘It was a joke.’ He refilled my glass with red. ‘Anthropology, you said you studied? So it is your job to see through people?’

Drieka’s son gave me a lift back to the farm as it got dark because I was too drunk to drive myself. The back windshield of his car was tinted and had neon letters painted across it in English: I’m The Boss.

I closed my eyes because the moonlight was hurting them.

‘You see it there – the Afrikaans language monument?’ he said. ‘On the Paarl rock?’

‘Please don’t make me open my eyes for that,’ I said.

‘It is not what you think,’ he replied. ‘The views from the top are beautiful. In summer, I have taken a picnic up there for the full moon.’

‘It doesn’t offend you?’

‘Not at all. I like the words that are written in the path to the monument. This is our earnestness. Do you understand?’

‘This is our earnestness?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘About this, we are earnest.’

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