The Dop System

bottle + skull and crossbones

Continuing the South African food theme, here’s something from this weekend’s edition of the Sunday Times. The story concerns the noxious ‘dop system’, where workers on vineyards in the Western Cape were paid, in part, with alcohol. Through this, cataclysmic levels of foetal alcohol syndrome have plagued communities of farmworkers there.

Thing is, although the system was outlawed in the early 1990s, it is still, from what I’ve heard, alive and well, though in a far more discreet way. Worse, there has been an increased incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome. This can’t be blamed on the sub rosa persistence of the dop system. In the absence of anything else, the tone of the article below suggests that the communities have only themselves to blame.

But there’s somewhere else to point the finger, and that is the brewing companies. And in South Africa, that means South African Breweries, one of the world’s top four companies. Although much of their growth in the past 10 years has come from international acquisitions, they’ve made a great deal of money from expanding sales in South Africa. Aggressive marketing in poor areas, together with reduced production costs associated with taking over its two local competitors, mean that the main vendors of the local brew are able to make a killing out of the tragedy of systematic alcoholism.

‘Dop’ system leaves a massive hangover

Rampant alcoholism and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome are a legacy of paying for work with drink, writes Lauren Cohen

As a 13-year-old, Willem Steyn recalls being given a tomato-paste can full of wine in return for feeding the horses on the farm he lived on.

Working as an adult in the time of the dop system, Steyn said he was paid R70 a week and given a nightly incentive by the foreman – a bottle and half of wine.

The dop system, whereby farmers either paid a portion of their workers’ wages in wine or allowed them to buy wine on credit, was legal between 1928 and 1961.

“It was a reward for good work. You only got wine when you had been working on the farm for three months,” Steyn explained.

If a worker missed a day they had to work a full week before their wine rations resumed.

“When the dop system was stopped, we were only given a few more rands extra instead of the wine.”

Now 54 and a bricklayer on a Wellington fruit and wine farm, Steyn says he lays the blame for heavy drinking on the shoulders of farm management of years gone by.

The Black Association of the Wine and Spirits Industry (Bawsi) shares his view and plans to file a class action against the government on behalf of victims of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and alcoholics, who they say have a legitimate claim against the industry and the government.

Bawsi president Nosey Pieterse said the dop system was one legacy of slavery on the Cape’s wine farms.

“The system was outlawed in 1961 but its use only really declined in the ’90s, but continued thereafter in a clandestine way, despite its obvious toll on the children,” Pieterse said.

“Everybody is aware of the devastation caused by the dop system but government has not introduced any major rehabilitation or FAS awareness programmes.”

Bawsi has engaged the services of a law firm to gather the necessary funds, legal and technical experts and hopes to file before the end of the year.

Dr Gerhard van Wyk and Professor Denis Viljoen have been appointed as part of Bawsi’s team of experts to provide technical and medical advice.

While Steyn is at work, his wife Tina is a voluntary day mother to 12 farm children up to the age of six, three of whom suffer from FAS.

“They’re special children; when you teach them something you’ve got to repeat it over and over. They forget easily and you’ve got to be very patient,” Tina said.

“When you speak to the parents about FAS they become defiant. It’s an issue but their attitude is ‘so what’.

Small stature is one of the characteristics of FAS, and four- year-old Thean is the size of a child half his age.

Other characteristics include facial abnormalities, poor co-ordination, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, speech and language difficulties, mental retardation or low IQ and poor judgment skills.

“Farm workers drink beer, mostly, or they buy a five-litre papsak [box wine], known as the blink toekoms [bright future], because drink is the only thing they have to look forward to,” Tina said.

“There’s a culture of drinking, the parents drink — the women the whole week and the men on weekends. I’ve lived on four farms and seen it on all of them. Its a behaviour pattern, a sickness, that passes from one generation to the next.”

A four-year study in Wellington, in the Western Cape, by the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) found that 54 out of 818 children tested had FAS.

“The prevalence of FAS in the Wellington population of school-entry children has increased steadily from 48 per 1000 in 1997 to 76/1000 in 1999 to 88/1000 in 2002,” said Viljoen, who is also FARR’s chief executive.

Studies in Upington, in the Northern Cape, have also found a high incidence of FAS children and those with partial FAS.

The Sunday Times visited Wellington and spoke to Marie Rhodes while her five-year-old son CJ, a suspected FAS, case stood shyly at their feet.

“I drank while I was pregnant, the last three months,” Rhodes admitted. “I knew it was wrong but if I didn’t drink, my husband would fight with me.”

Rhodes, 37, smelt strongly of alcohol and admitted she had already had a drink that day.

“I drink two or three beers over the weekend; I’m not sure. But I wake up with babalas [a hangover] the next morning.”

Cedric Bruintjies, a Vulnerable Community field worker for FAS-prevention programme FAS Facts, said alcohol abuse and FAS was most prevalent in the farming areas of Rawsonville, Wellington, Bonnievale, Villiersdorp, Grabouw and De Aar.

“Teenage pregnancy and violence in homes is also high on farms that have problems with alcohol abuse,” he said. “The man is king because he brings home the money.”

As we leave the farm we pass a pensioner, dressed in his town clothes, lying on the grass and singing loudly to himself.

It’s pension payday and he has just returned from collecting his money.

Francois Grobbelaar, who runs FAS Facts in the Western Cape, said the dop system had given farm workers a culture of drinking.

“You don’t change a culture easily, it is something ingrained in people.”

But Lourens Jonker, former KWV chairman and owner of Weltevrede Wine Estate near Bonnievale, believes it unfair to make the dop system’s legacy a problem of today’s young wine farmers.

“Many of these young chaps never knew the dop system. The government and Bawsi should rather investigate drinking in the townships — a big problem which should not be referred back to the farmers. It’s impossible to generalise and say the problem lies only on wine farms.”

Jonker, who was born on a wine farm, recalled life when the dop system was legal.

“We gave our workers a bottle of very low-alcohol wine, made especially for that purpose, at the end of every day. We had no problems.”