Our very first visit to the Sonop Vineyard on the Western Cape Winelands was a more remarkable learning curve than we could ever have imagined, more provocatively challenging than we could have contrived. I was there with Queens University Presbyterian Chaplaincy students where at the time I was Chaplain. For some time we had been a community interested in Fair Trade. In fact we had been endeavouring to make our Chaplaincy as Fair Trade as possible and were campaigning with Christian Aid and Tear Fund to push Queens University to become a Fair Trade University. So we had a rough idea. Fair Trade proponents and pioneers The Co-op had put us in touch with this Fair Trade Vineyard about an hour’s drive out of Cape Town.
Meeting the workers at the Sonop Vineyard was an inspiration. They were so excited about their work but more importantly about their new found freedoms. They spoke about their ownership of land; they own their homes and have their own land where they have their own vines that they tend and sell on to the mother company. In South Africa, of course, land ownership is a raging issue. For the non-white to own land is a whole new sense of security, dignity and freedom. No longer could they be tossed out of their homes and sacked on a white man’s whim. Yet more than that, education is so vital to the new South Africa. That which the oppressed used as a protest against apartheid by boycotting has now become the very avenue to consolidating the change by making sure the children get the education that their parents never had. So we heard about the nursery school in their own village, the Primary School where the bus takes them and the possibility of University – all paid for! Even the adults are getting all kinds of practical schooling. It is a world not dreamt about ten year ago but very much a reality. The sense of dignity, self worth and driving purpose of these workers as they develop their land is a joy to inhabit.
But there was more… so much more. Moments later and just a few hundred yards away we were standing by a fence in the workers’ village. On their side of that fence were beautifully painted houses and carefully groomed gardens. There was that little school and a play area. There was colour and beauty and all of that freedom and ownership we had just heard about was bursting with life. But on the other side of the fence…was the neighbouring vineyard. There was literally the thinnest breadth of wire dividing. And on that other side there was dirty, faded, paint peeling houses. There were rough dust and dirt paths between them. There was no colour, no energy, no pride and no sense of hopefulness.
It was a stark contrast. It was the most challenging piece of land I had ever stood upon. The choice was clear and stark. Buy into one side of the fence and there is a sense of care and justice for the workers. Buy into the other and there is simply exploitation, disregard and neglect of workers and their children. When my students stand in their local Co-op to buy coffee, sugar, tea, chocolate or whatever they now know they now have a visual aid to help them decide what products to buy. Their decisions have suddenly become a whole lot bigger and a whole lot clearer. There is a thin line between justice and oppression and we stood right at the sharpest part of the fence. Which side will we be investing in? What side of the fence best describes the redemption of heaven? Which side is God most thrilled with? What does it mean in our everyday shopping for us to bring God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
So, when I stand and see products without a Fair Trade mark I wonder what happens on the side of the fence where the grapes were picked... or the tea... or the coffee... or the bananas... or whatever... and I just can no longer bring myself to buy. I have driven a few miles to another store at times to makes sure my choices are on the right side of the fence!