Untold tales of the vine

2011-06-04 10:58

Mohammed Karaan was born in Stellenbosch, yet it was his grandfather’s stories of farming in the Transkei that captured his imagination.

“I had green fingers and kept animals,” he says. “I always wanted to be a farmer.”

But although he owns a farm today, he is only a weekend farmer.

Karaan is Dean of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University, the cradle of Afrikaner ideology in this town at the heart of the Winelands. His faculty is the only one in Africa to offer degrees in viticulture and oenology.

It is a measure of transformation at the formerly conservative university that the son of an imam, who grew up in the “coloured” area of Strand during apartheid, should today head a faculty that has promoted and defended the interests of wine farmers through its history of more than 100 years.

Karaan recalls: “I would accompany my grandfather (Abdul Rahim Adam) hawking cool drinks down Merriman Street, and he’d tell me, ‘Those white buildings, that’s where the clever people are. That’s where you will go’.”

Not only did he attend Stellenbosch University, he made his way to the top of his faculty.

Quietly spoken and thoughtful, Karaan calls to mind the American writer John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath as we speak of the social history of wine, agriculture and the evolution of the industry in South Africa.

Although he grew up in Strand, close to Somerset West, Karaan had never visited the nearby Vergelegen, one of the earliest wine farms, until a few years ago.

He knew of the area’s history. As a young boy he would browse through the library, coming across the stories of settlements of “Hottentots” (as the Khoikhoi were known) and Malays in the area; he knew from oral history about Sheik Abidin Tadia Yussuf, an imam exiled from Indonesia in 1694, who was sent to live on the farm Sandvlei, today Macassar, near Strand.

Runaway slaves came to live and learn with him.

In 1822 a census found a Muslim community in Strand, which has been researched recently by former principal Ebrahim Rhoda. “My ancestors were these people,” Karaan says, “their history unrecorded.”

In the 1960s, under the Group Areas Act, the community was moved away for white families. “History doesn’t want to be reminded of this.”

Knowing he was to attend a function at Vergelegen, Karaan chose to visit it the week before, mindful that it would not be easy for him.

“The Rajah of Tambora was a political prisoner at Vergelegen and was married to the daughter of Sheik Yussuf.

I cannot verify the direct bloodline to him but consider him a forefather in the context of my Cape Malay ancestry.

My direct ancestry can be traced back to great-grandfather Moosa Karaan who came from Java in Indonesia.

“There was a bronze plaque at Vergelegen, with the names and year the slaves arrived, and their ages. They were 11, 12, 15. They came from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India, and in bondage. My ancestors were on Vergelegen. It’s the saddest thing I’ve done. I cried. What does a Dutchman do with a young woman slave?”

Karaan was sent to school in Johannesburg when he was 12. “I missed the Cape every day, and we would travel back by train for holidays. The Karoo was beautiful in the morning, De Aar at sunset.

 As we came through the Hex River Valley, lush and pregnant, it had the sense of the celebration of nature – and the tragedy of people.

It was so obvious to see the overworked people, and they were drunk. I couldn’t figure it out: in the arid areas the people were big, they were Africans and well fed; in the lush areas, the people were small . . . ”

Karaan heads a faculty that needs to grapple with questions of transformation in the industry and look beyond wine to the bigger challenges facing agriculture in the twenty-first century. These include climate change and food security.

He is no stranger to difficult situations, change and being “other”. As he explains, “In matric I applied to Stellenbosch University.

I could speak Afrikaans, and I was the only black student in the faculty. I had many interviews with the rector, to make sure that I was ‘okay’. I was asked questions such as ‘What should we do with Mandela?’ (Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned at the time).

“It wasn’t easy, but it was good for me. I learned how to deal with racism and cultural issues in a non-threatening way. I would do it all again . . . did my BSc and got to know the system.”

The pace of change is slow, he says. “But genuine. There’s no crisis to drive change. At faculty level only 17% of students are black; that needs to be doubled. The faculty is very Afrikaans, very embedded, and Afrikaans people feel more threatened, there’s still a laager mentality. I’m fortunate I can speak the language well, and I’m non-confrontational. There’s a sense that ‘we’ve groomed him, he’s the houseboy’.”

Karaan believes South African farmers are agriculturalists par excellence. “They, and the Israelis, can really farm. The best livestock farmers are the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape.”

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