#WINEFORGOOD: A dignified life at Iona Wine Farm

Friday, 3 April, 2020
Rozy Gunn, Iona Wine Farm
I’m not really in the business of blowing trumpets so I’ll get straight to my point. South African farmers* are at the receiving end of a lot of criticism with regard to working conditions, remuneration, and treatment of farm labourers. I am of the opinion that there is seldom smoke without fire, or the subject would not raise its ugly head quite so often.

So before we all curl up in a fetal position on the kitchen floor in hurt denial, or make a long list of all the good we do** or calculate the untenable circumstances under which farmers operate and the lack of government support, let me cut this unproductive paragraph short. Perhaps we should take the punch and own our sorry history.  And by this, I simply mean acknowledge and remember it. No sackcloth or ashes needed.

Our energy is needed elsewhere. We live in a country where selective amnesia with regards to Apartheid belongs in the dustbin of quaint old ideas. Acknowledgment has an uncanny ability to breed understanding and in turn compassion. These are the valuable tools we need to help those who work the land for us, (and ourselves in turn), not only to overcome this partisan agricultural legacy we have all inherited – but to thrive.

Farming is at best a difficult way to make money, so I have specifically focused on human things here at Iona that we feel have helped build relationships, inspire confidence and instill dignity beyond the payroll

Sharing is everything

Become a teacher in whatever way you can. Pass on whatever knowledge or skill you have, whether it’s in the kitchen or the wine cellar or fixing a wall. I know it takes a lot of effort to engage with all your staff, and transit labour makes this even more difficult. I have basic Xhosa thanks to growing up in the Eastern Cape on a farm and some dodgy Afrikaans at my disposal and I use them whenever I can to talk to our staff, explain why we use the products we do and engage in the farming practices we do, or crack a joke or ask about their children. Teaching and explaining also take more time than just doing it yourself, so you’re sharing your time here too. 

Share your hopes and dreams and concerns. There is more common ground here than one might think. This inspires a culture of “working with us” and not “for us” and encourages communication, initiative and loyalty and responsibility. This country’s basically a mess and we’re all in it together. The best chance we have of getting out of this hole is probably also together. We try and build our people up through encouragement, by example and inclusion and explain the need to take charge and be disciplined and fair.

Money isn't everything

While remuneration is the most recognized, necessary and valid form of acknowledgment of work done, (and by the way I’m not convinced that the minimum wage is a living wage), there are other things that make working somewhere worthwhile and affirming that is not about money. 

First consider that the average farm worker is probably not in it out of some vocational calling, but rather as a desperate means by an insufficiently educated person almost always from a disadvantaged or displaced background to earn a crust.  I would venture to add the burden of inherited damaged psychology to that already heady mix. These are not ingredients for building self-worth or confidence, but rather anger and dissatisfaction.  Granted, not an easy workforce but how much more important it is to treat such workers with respect, with compassion, with humanity. The quickest way to diminish poverty is to provide dignity. 

Everybody on this farm greets one another and thanks one another at the end of the day. We make a point of introducing any farm or domestic worker to visitors - no one is invisible. Simple, nice, no hierarchy, costs nothing, just human. Staff turnover at Iona is rare and I believe it’s the dignity rather than the money that keeps them here.

Education equals inclusion

If my grown-up children hear me saying “Knowledge is Power” one more time, I’ll get the sack, but I mean knowledge in the broad sense of knowing rather than the simple acquisition of facts. A huge part of privilege we take so much for granted is to feel comfortable at a dinner table, to speak fluent English, to know basic road etiquette and to appreciate the scourge of littering. This aspect of education is as important at Iona as fancy degrees. To this end, I thank the parent body and teaching staff of Applewood Preparatory School in Elgin where we send children from Iona farm, who through inclusion in their own children’s lives further the education that we pay for. They are the village that is needed to raise the child. Christmas parties and staff functions always happen in our home and garden, I like to invite the very people who have helped create my home into it and make them feel comfortable. That goes for all waiter training groups we ever host here at Iona. Part of the privilege of knowledge is the confidence to be at ease in any environment

The culture of sharing and education runs so deep here at Iona that I know that we have members of staff who in their own capacity help workers send children to college. If running a farm is like running a small country, then we as farmers are indeed in a position to make a difference. If a significant amount of global warming can be attributed to poor farming practices then similarly we are to be held accountable or to be treasured for the methods we employ. If it is a privilege to farm, then so must it be a responsibility. It’s time to lead from the ground up- exciting!               

Rozy Gunn

Please know that all sentiments and opinions expressed in this letter are my own). [*Farmer- in the South African context the farmer is generally the landowner, is generally male and is generally white. In my 52 years of growing up in a farming district and working in one, I have met one farmer who is not white. I present this fact for the sake of clarity only.

**(Which in many cases far exceeds what is expected of other professions, Iona is not alone in providing housing, electricity, water, transport, interest-free loans along with the usual pension schemes and funeral cover to all permanent workers. Some farmers also provide creche facilities and schools so I am not diminishing the contribution that farmers make towards their labour and to the South African economy as a whole.)]


There are plenty of good news stories about upliftment and transformation in the South African Wine Industry. The #wineforgood website, launched by wine.co.za in June 2016, hosts all the positive stories from the winelands, of which there are plenty. wine.co.za has made April a focus for #wineforgood stories. Share them far and wide and spread the good news about South African wine.