CULTURAL BIOGRAPHY OF A COMMODITY
By Julia Roelofse, site curator, Curator Anthropology, DITSONG: Pioneer Museum and Willem Prinsloo Agricultural Museum.
A BOTTLE OF LOURENSFORD CHARDONNAY
A 750 ml bottle of 2015 Lourensford Chardonay wine was purchased for consumption at a supermarket, Checkers, which is local to South Africa. The supermarket is situated within a shopping complex north of Pretoria. The centre itself is located between a very poor housing area and a wealthier area. It is small and consists of small shops selling relatively low value items, such as PEP, Cash Crusaders (in effect a money lending trope), where one is able to lend money against the value estimated of the goods, mainly electronic or jewellery goods. The money is lent to the borrower in exchange for the goods handed in as a security should the money not be able to be returned to the lending company (Kopytoff, 1986:64).
The shopping centre also has two Chinese owned shops who have imported goods from China in bulk for sale – retail shops. One of the shops is a clothing shop, where it is obvious the clothes are imported and not well made, as the sizes of the clothes are smaller than South African sizes. The second Chinese shop is similar to a mini Chinese market. It has many various goods crammed into a small space ranging from laser pointers to nail polish, stationery, toys and cookware.
The centre caters for a middle to lower income group. A cellphone shop just inside the centre is run by a family from Bangladesh. For the average income white South African, the shops owned by foreigners are part of the changing landscape of our country. The Chinese family is seen as industrious escaping from their homelands’ circumstances to build a better life. The family keeps to themselves and are proud. The Bangladeshis are proud of their country and speak of home with great longing. They are Muslim and have also arrived in South Africa to run a small shop to send money home as well as make a life for themselves in this country. A life that seems to be a good life in Pretoria North may be a terrible life for a person living in Durban but a wonderful life for someone from Bangladesh. (Kopytoff, 1986:66) Within the Pretoria North area, the number of mosques are growing. The Bangladeshis have been reaching out to the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden. Their faith and culture have shown them respect. Diawara (1998:35) describes the evil forest which becomes colonised by Christian missionaries, but in this case the conversion to Islam of those whom “would have been cast out”, and now have found new life and meaning in Allah. There are a number of similarities in Diawara (1998:41-43).
On street corners and parking lots, Zimbabweans and Nigerians make a living watching cars, making clothes, cutting hair, selling fake hair, CDs and also trying to convert the lost, but in this case to Christianity. Although not within the shopping centre, the irregular and organic formation of these small businesses almost takes the form or a market place forced to align itself along the edges of the parking areas and pavements. Some traditional foods are ready for take away or for a quick bite under the shelter on the pavement. Each item for sale as seen through the eyes of an anthropologist would have its own origin, its own maker, a status and an age. It could be used within its successive ages for different purposes (Kopytoff 1986:66-67).
As Diawara (1998:41-42) comments on the diversity of the markets of West Africa, means of trade, bartering, the national pride particularly of African nationals, could this be the new South Africa, the globalisation of South Africa? The South African economy has not fallen so much, that the country is totally dependent on the World Bank for assistance, yet the country carries massive debt. South Africans are proud but very diverse and racism still raises its head. Politicians are corrupt but have been called to account. The country is not under a dictator as many of the Western African countries.
Each object or item for sale would have a biography or history. They would have a description within a culture and how they were to be used in that culture. As they are sold, or possibly first repaired and then resold, the object adds to its biography. In Africa where an object would need to have an extensive life due to the value of money and cost, the object may be repaired or altered and sold a number of times. Its biography would include who did the selling and buying, how the money was acquired and relationships between the people whose lives it passes through. Within a person’s biography would be their intellectual, relationship, political and social biographies. Similarly, with objects that may also offer indications to the family relations, social standing and even class structure (Kopytoff 1986:68).
To backtrack and re-enter the Checkers supermarket, and purchase the commodity; the Chardonay’s first value was higher, but had a reduced value of R85.00 due to the age of the bottle. The same bottle of wine was sold at Makro, a wholesale supermarket, for R 59.00. The wine is created for an export market to be exported to the Netherlands. The beautiful label and bottle was neatly packed on a table next to other bottles of wine also on discount, in the alcohol section of Checkers. The Lourensford Chardonnay would have travelled approximately 1 460 km from Somerset West to reach Pretoria.
The grapes are harvested and wine is produced on the Lourensford farm in Somerset West, which has been a wine farm since the 1700s. The estate was once part of the neighbouring Vergelegen, one of Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s farms established in 1709. Here he spent Dutch East India company resources on the farm allowing him unfair advantage over the Free Burghers and giving him the monopoly on wine. This led to a revolt among farmers in 1706. A petition was drawn up and sent to the VOC headquarters in Amsterdam. His one sided decisions also determined who could be part of the meat and wine monopoly (Du Bruin. W. 2015).
Dr Christo Wiese purchased the farm in 1998. The history of Vergelegen on its website, gives an account of the people who lived in the area, namely the Khoi-Khoi and Khoi-San people. The Quenaku peoples also lived within the Hottentots Holland mountains. The Khoi-Khoi and Khoi-San peoples were well established in this area when the Dutch arrived at the Cape (info@lourensford, no Author, no Date). There is very little stated in public brochures about the slaves that were kept on the farm, but there is a small museum on Lourensford, indicating that there was indeed a slave lodge on the farm. However, there are academic articles such as Markell, A., Hall, M. & Schrire, C. (1995: Abstract) that indicate there were interrelationships between the slaves and colonists and indigenous inhabitants of the Western Cape. Between the years 1705 and 1706 there were 250 to 350 slaves working on the Vergelegen farm, the foremost farm in the Cape (https://slavery.iziko.org.za/vanderstelera).
Very much like the Waterfront project as described by Worden (1996:59), visitors have been drawn to the various attractions of the farm Lourensford, their main interest in visiting the farm is to relax and have a good meal with a glass of wine produced on the estate. Not to think about the slaves who were kept in the slave lodge on the original farm on whose labour the farm was built. In Hall & Bombela (2005:18 ) the Lourensford farm has digressed vastly from what it was in the 1700s and become a capitalist’s dream. Visitors experience a number of pleasurable escapes, taking them further and further away from what was, the farm of Willem Adriaan van der Stel, a man driven to outdo all the other farms in its production and competition. The more slaves one had, the more commodities could be produced creating greater capital. Visitors come to the farm for modern entertainment rather than to learn of the history of the area. The Lourensford farm has lost its essence of Cape heritage and become a modern form of escapism for the elite. The camphor and oak trees are the living testaments of what was. Visitors are removed from the history of the farm. There is no place for them to reflect on the life of the labouring class or rather slaves of the 18th century who laboured intensively to ensure the vines were pruned or grapes picked as required by the owner.
The Cape has also removed itself from the rest of Africa and the world. The Dutch heritage of the coloniser is reflected in the architecture and some of the food one can purchase, but the origins and heritage of the slaves who laboured on the farm are lost.
The slaves originated from various parts of the world. Many were children. Their origins were as diverse as India, Tranquebare, Madagascar, Bali, Batavia, Ceylon and the Canary Islands. Slaves were the principal labour source on farms and viticulture especially made intensive use of slave labour. (SA History on Line. no Author. no Date). As Kopytoff (1986:65) explains that the slaves were captured or sometimes purchased, which took away their identity and forcing them to become just a something or a thing to be used, a commodity. When the slave is purchased and becomes part of a group they receive a new identity. They act within the groups norms and culture and become a person, an individual again.
The history of the Khoi- Khoi, Khoi-San and Quenaku or red people is also not well represented although there is a Stone Age midden found on site as well as a site reminiscent of a celestial stone conservatory. These archaeological features are not well publicised in terms of the rest of the context of what is afforded to visitors. The visitor is able to immerse themselves in new ventures such as rope climbing, zip lines, spa treatments, village markets, cellar tours, blind wine tasting, vodka tasting, and of all aspects a link to Africa a visit to an master’s art gallery. The visitor has become a gentile Englishman or lady enjoying the luxuries on offer between the beauty of green lush mountains and gardens. (Hall & Bombella, 2005:20).
Lourensford has removed herself from Africa or has Africa removed herself from Lourensford, wanting nothing to do with the gentile capitalist enjoying a safe clean neat orderly environment where everything is clear and organised? Here the commodity, the Chardonnay would enter into a reciprocal nature, it would become a gift or a commodity to be used as a drink, a luxury. (Kopytoff 1986:69). The guest could forget about the slaves, the struggles people endure to survive, to come to live in a country which may seem uninhabitable to some, and yet an opportunity for a new life to others. People who are able to adapt and develop systems of transaction so they can endure and even improve their own lives (Diawara, 1998:41-42).
Diawara (1998:162) explains that a sense of unity and acceptance of each other’s cultures in West Africa is what is necessary today for each of the participating countries to become economically successful and to build a thriving economic system and culture. This would be true for South Africa as well.
- Cape Slavery No Date. No Author. Available at: https://slavery.iziko.org.za/grootconstantia (Accessed on: 25 June 2020)
- Du Bruin. W. 2015. The heritage portal: The Vergelegen story Part One- Splendid Beginnings and a Period of decline. Available at: www.theheritageportal.co.za (Accessed on: 25 June 2020)
- Lourensford Wineries https;//firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kopytoff, I. 1986. “The cultural biography of things: commoditisation is a process” in Appadurai, A. (ed) The Social Life of Things. Cambridge New York. Cambridge University Press. 64-91
- Hall, M. & Bombela, P. 2005.” Las Vegas in Africa” Journal of Social Anthropology 5:5-25.
- Markell, A., Hall, M. & Schrire, C. 1995. “The historical archaeology of Vergelegen, an early farmstead at the Cape of Good Hope”. Historical archaeology 29 (1), 10-34, 1995.
- SA History On Line. “Adriaan van der Stel” Available at: Http:///sahistory.org.za/pages/people/vanderstelwa.htm (Accessed on: 25 June 2020)
- Worden, N. 1996. “Contested Heritage at the Cape Town Waterfront”. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2:1-2, 59-75, DOI: 10.1080/13527259608722161