What an amazing experience I had on a visit to Weltevrede Wine Estate in Bonnievale. Somewhere deep in its 100 year old, catacomb-like wine cellar, we discovered the secret to South Africa’s future success as a peaceful and prosperous country. I know it sounds insane, but it’s true! This story is multi-faceted but it all comes together with wine, so grab a glass and read on…
Where to begin? Let’s talk about the Jakes Gerwel Technical School which opened its doors last year. What’s special about this school is that it was built by the community of Bonnievale; I mean everyone pitched in! The architect, the workers, the equipment, the bricks and mortar, all were donated and done pro bono. The 12 hectares of land was donated by Phillip Jonker, the patriarch of the Jonker family who still own and run ‘Weltevrede,’ a word meaning ‘very well satisfied’ in the Afrikaans language. Here, where previously there was merlot growing, there is now a growth of hope.
The school focuses on specialized vocational training for the young adults of the Bonnievale community. With the local high school only accommodating 350 students and the youth numbering 1200, the townspeople saw a need and fulfilled it by sheer determination and a desire to succeed. They didn’t cut any corners, they wanted everything to be of the highest standard, and you can see it, with the top notch equipment in the classrooms. At this school kids are taught vocational subjects such as home economics, woodwork, steel work, agriculture, (hydro/aquaponics), etc with a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship.
There are no school fees. The Trust managed to raise R50 million in order to qualify for government aid – which thankfully pays for the salaries of the teachers. The kids walk around the school looking happy. Smiling faces abound.
“You should have seen it when we first started. Every break time there would be a fight. The kids didn’t know how to react to being in a school environment, but the more they built stuff with their hands, the more they baked goodies and sold them in town or brought someone a treat at home, the more they felt good about themselves, and the number of weapons confiscated in the office decreased!” Phillip laughed.
“My favourite, most rewarding part is to watch as their parents read their reports on the way out of school, and see them lift the paper in the air with joy and kiss their kids on the forehead with happiness and pride. That makes it all worth it.” (I choked up a bit at this part.)
I study Philip Jonker a bit more carefully; what an impressive individual. He looks a bit like Roger Federer, only slightly older and more priestly. If religion was something like what Phillip’s ideas were offering, I’d worship there. Here’s a guy, an Afrikaner, a farmer, an old world character from a bygone era, fourth generation South African, a white man, standing in front of me humbly, not saying condescending things, not acting superior, but using his privilege to move his whole town forward. Surely if everyone was like Phillip, the world would be a better place?
We drive back to Weltevrede feeling very bright eyed and bushy tailed. I realize that I’m feeling something I haven’t felt about South Africa in a long time: I’m feeling HOPEFUL. When did I lose my faith in this country? I wonder. I look at the golden and green rolling hills and fruit trees, the grape vines and meandering water canals of this part of the Overberg and I think: gosh, it’s beautiful. I feel happy to be here.
We are ushered into a dark cellar. It’s so dark that only long thin white candles melting over wine bottles on the floor, shine a light on a passageway which disappears to the right. We are in the estate’s underground wine cellar. We march, wine glass in hand and single file through jagged openings in impossibly thick walls that look like they’ve been hollowed out by the Incredible Hulk. An elderly lady is claustrophobic and has to retreat back to the sunshine above. The adventurers press on.
We pass through endless empty cement chambers, where wine used to be stored a hundred years ago. The walls are shiny, because they would treat the walls with beeswax to protect the wine from the cement walls. On top of every chamber ceiling there is a now closed off square opening where, from above, they would extract the wines from the cellar. We reach a beautifully eery room where there are rustic muslin sacks around a table made of stacked wooden planks. At last there is wine!
In this cool, quiet, ghostly place, Phillip treats us to the estate’s 1912 range of wines. On each wine bottle label, you’ll find the names of all the workers involved in the making of the wines. I personally loved his 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon; a perfectly clear beautiful berry nose and satisfyingly smooth finish made me ask for more.
What is the oldest family owned wine estate that we know? He asks. In our company we are restaurateurs, wine distributors, liquor store owners and wine connoisseurs, yet we all get it wrong. This is when we realize that all the wine estates we think of have been sold and are no longer family owned and run. Phillip is convinced that Weltevrede is one of, if not the only, wine estate still originally owned by the family. He’s staying put, he’s basically saying to us. He’s not going anywhere. I think about myself and my recent thoughts of leaving and I feel shame.
He is clearly proud of his home and proud of his people. He is particularly proud of his delicious wine, which he’s clearly taken time to perfect. Out comes the piece de resistance; the Weltevrede 1912 Poet’s Prayer Chardonnay. This is a special treat for us. I remind myself to be grateful for every second I am there.
This wine is Phillip’s personal labour of love. He doesn’t release it every year, and doesn’t release it until it’s absolutely perfect. He’s even reached bottling stage and then decided against it. The wine lives up to its name: it’s very much like a prayer; a cool, oaky, golden, smooth, lip-licking one!
“Do you write poetry?” I ask.
He comes from a very artistic family, his mother and wife are both artists, and yes, he does write sometimes. Phillip the philanthropist, Phillip the winemaker, Phillip the poet. What next?!
“I once made wine for Mr Mandela, using grapes from Robben Island.” He says.
Jakes Gerwel, academic, anti-apartheid activist and one of Nelson Mandela’s closest friends, who also has the Bonnievale school named after him, took the wine on Phillip’s behalf to Qunu on his 95th birthday and sent Phillip a picture which he treasures but doesn’t display at the farm. I like that he calls him ‘Mr Mandela’ and not the irritating ‘Madeeeeeebah’ and that his isiXhosa click in ‘Qunu’ is perfect and understated and natural. How he managed to grow grapes on an island full of sea gulls, mussel shells and red tape is another story…
We sat sipping on the Poet’s Prayer, reeling with the wealth of storytelling and wine this man has gifted us with. We walk out of the catacombs a lot humbler than when we entered. We walk out of there… very well satisfied.
I just wish everyone could see the impact of what this one farmer and all who work alongside him, has had on the community. He’s a humble, well-mannered, sweet, yet proud Afrikaner with an open heart and a mind that sees a bright future ahead and makes it happen!
South Africa needs more like him.
Copyright Sandra Radovanovic Buckingham 2019