Sunday Times


Wine farm pops cork on tasty power shift


● The Sonnenberg family shook up the high street when they founded Woolworths. Almost a century later they are at it again, this time in the Cape winelands, where the heir to the family farm has signed a pioneering deal with his workers.

Whereas his retail forebears pushed a feel-good shopping experience, David Sonnenberg, from Diemersfon­tein farm near Wellington, has supplied a feel-good transforma­tion model based partly on his training as a clinical psychologi­st.

Sonnenberg says the formulaic approach favoured by the government has reached its sell-by date.

At Diemersfon­tein, farmworker­s are now in charge, owning the majority stake in the successful wine label, the winery and the marketing infrastruc­ture. They also own a guesthouse, fully paid off, and are exporting pinotage to France.

But also like his forebears, Sonnenberg is not in the business of giving things away. The workers bought their stake in the business by using their own guesthouse as collateral. Staff use their assets held in an empowermen­t entity called Thokozani, as collateral, with three years to pay back the loan. Sonnenberg has negotiated a friendly deal, but he doesn’t believe in handouts.

The Diemersfon­tein deal differs from the multitude of failed farmworker empowermen­t schemes in two other key ways: it is not just for black staff, the government has helped with limited grants, but instead of buying the land, staff are buying the crown jewel — the Diemersfon­tein label.

Sonnenberg, son of Woolworths cofounder Richard Sonnenberg, worked overseas for 20 years as a psychologi­st before returning home to put his skills to good use. He built the Diemersfon­tein brand on a farm originally bought in 1942 by his grandfathe­r Max Sonnenberg, also a Woolworths cofounder.

Over the years the farm grew from a family retreat into a business encompassi­ng the winery, a guesthouse, conferenci­ng, events and property developmen­t.

“I stayed for 20 years overseas but my heartstrin­gs were always here,” Sonnenberg said this week. “It started off with a lot of cultural meaning and inter-community meaning for me. When I got to the more serious social-thinking phase, I was keen to put my imprint on it.”

His success is largely thanks to manager Denise Stubbs, who grew up in the nearby wine-farming area of Pniel. Stubbs moved to Diemersfon­tein to head the staff empowermen­t company, Thokozani, which Sonnenberg and his wife, Sue, initiated upon their return to SA. With the purchase of the Diemersfon­tein label, Thokozani is moving into the driving seat.

The Sonnenberg­s still live in the farm’s manor house. It has a book-lined study with family portraits, and a striking photograph of a pensive Nelson Mandela.

Stubbs said she felt a responsibi­lity to uplift her community in light of her growing up amid the “dop system”, the name given to the practice of substituti­ng liquor for cash when compensati­ng farmworker­s.

“I experience­d the dop system, so why would I choose the wine industry? Here I get the opportunit­y to plough back in a project for my community,” she said.

“I had no clue about equity management, or agricultur­e legislatio­n — it was all very complex,” Stubbs said.

She said she was equally nonplussed by the various iterations of government land reform, most of which seemed doomed.

“I said to David that there are so many different schemes, so please let us rather see what we can do on the farm ourselves.

“He said: ‘Denise, I have news for you — I am not going to give you anything for nothing.’”

The two then set about forging a business relationsh­ip that involved mentorship, leading to their own home-grown model with an empowermen­t entity set up to mirror the ‘parent’ business … then absorb it.

Sonnenberg said his approach was informed partly by his experience in psychother­apy.

“Some of it has to do with understand­ing what people go through when they are given new responsibi­lities, or are fighting for themselves to be treated better. That’s what perhaps differenti­ates us. We’ve done some reflection, about what it means to go through attitudina­l shifts. We articulate that.”

Stubbs said the immediate challenge was to navigate the impact of Covid-19 on the tourism and wine industries, eased by Diemersfon­tein’s growing online sales.

A long history of land reform failure came under the spotlight this week in parliament, where MPs debated expropriat­ion of land without compensati­on. Most experts believe a new approach is needed to ensure sustainabl­e agricultur­e.

Diemersfon­tein vineyards supervisor Tholine Samuels said ownership had given her and her staff a new lease of life. “The vineyard is my child, my baby. If I mess up in the vineyard then they won’t get a good harvest. But I don’t need a boss looking over my shoulder.”

Western Cape premier Alan Winde this week welcomed the “historic deal” on the farm. “Diemersfon­tein, for a number of years now, has been a benchmark of the power of transforma­tion in the wine industry, and this announceme­nt takes the work they have done to empower their staff even further. We wish them all the success in the years ahead,” Winde said.

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 ??  ?? Farmworker­s harvest grapes at the Diemersfon­tein wine farm near Wellington in the Western Cape.
Farmworker­s harvest grapes at the Diemersfon­tein wine farm near Wellington in the Western Cape.
 ??  ?? David Sonnenberg on the stoep of the manor house at Diemersfon­tein.
David Sonnenberg on the stoep of the manor house at Diemersfon­tein.
 ?? Pictures: Esa Alexander ?? Dominique Afrikaner with a load of grapes at Diemersfon­tein.
Pictures: Esa Alexander Dominique Afrikaner with a load of grapes at Diemersfon­tein.

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