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Leaving a Sauer taste — the legs of apartheid linger in South Africa’s premier red wine

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Nick Dall has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. As a journalist covering everything from cricket to chameleons, his favourite stories are always those about people — dead or alive, virtuous or villainous. He is the co-author with Matthew Blackman of Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa and Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped South Africa (both Penguin Random House). Matthew Blackman has written as a journalist on corruption in South Africa, as well as on art, literature and history. He recently completed a PhD at the University of East Anglia. He lives in Cape Town with a dog of nameless breed.

Why is South Africa’s first 100-point wine named after the man who chaired the commission that provided the blueprint for what he termed ‘total apartheid’?

In September 2018, in a first for the South African wine industry, renowned British wine critic Tim Atkin MW awarded the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015 100 points. Atkin described it as “a great wine, with a distinguished track record in one of the best-ever Cape vintages: if any South African wine deserves 100 points, and I strongly believe that it does, then it is the brilliant Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015, one of the greatest young wines I have ever tasted.”

While there’s no doubting the wine’s “distinguished track record”, that of its namesake is a whole lot more dubious. Kanonkop’s website conveniently glosses over said track record, describing Paul Sauer as a man who “made his mark in various ways, perhaps most famously as a politician who served in the South African Parliament for 41 consecutive years (1929–1970). Sixteen of those years were spent as minister for the portfolios of Railways, Land and Irrigation, Public Works and Forestry.”

But, as part of our research for Spoilt Ballots, our new book on the history of democracy in South Africa, we discovered the far uglier truth.

With the famous liberal JW Sauer for a dad and Olive Schreiner (who he was named after) as an extremely close family friend, Paul Oliver Sauer might have gone on to become a leading liberal figure. His father was perhaps one of the most important liberal voices of the Cape Colony, who fought for the rights of both people of colour and women.

His mother’s closest friend, Olive (letters suggest they were maybe more than just friends), is perhaps one of the greatest liberal writers and thinkers South Africa has ever produced. She was famous around the world for writing polemics against the racism, corruption, racial mass murders in Rhodesia and a hugely influential book, Woman and Labour. Add to this the international bestseller Story of an African Farm and you have one pretty impressive CV.

Paul, however, was very much the white sheep in this family of black sheep. Born in Wynberg on New Year’s Day 1898, things started off well enough for him. During his schooling at Sacs, that bastion of Anglo-Saxon education, he served as both head boy and captain of the rugby First XV. But he soon lost his way at university, where he became a vocal proponent of republicanism.

After graduating, he jumped straight into politics. In 1923, aged only 25, he was beaten to the Stellenbosch seat by just 20 votes. A year later, when it again came up for grabs, he pulled out all the stops and managed to secure 65 extra votes. This all counted for nothing, however, as Jan Smuts’ United Party had spent the year enrolling hundreds of coloured voters. Sauer lost by 470 votes and was turned against the coloured vote for life. He would become one of the most radical right-wing segregationists in South African history.

In 1933, when the old foes Smuts and Barry Hertzog buried the hatchet and got into bed with one another to form the so-called “Fusion” government, it was Sauer who convinced DF Malan to break away. He famously said “we had to drag Malan out by the seat of his pants” – quite a feat considering the bad doctor’s girth.

By the time the NP met in the winter of 1934 to endorse the fusion of the NP and SAP into the new United Party, Malan’s mind had been changed. The UP was, he said, a bulwark of “imperialism and capitalism”. Paul Sauer, with 13 Cape Members of Parliament, four Vrystaters and one Vaalie broke away from the party to form the Gesuiwerde (Purified) National Party. At the time the Gesuiwerdes were the laughingstock of South African politics. But just 14 years later they would form the first apartheid government.

While Malan is typically credited as the architect of apartheid, it was Sauer in 1947 who chaired the commission that provided the blueprint for what he termed “total apartheid”. As Prof David Welsh writes, “practically every proposal in the Report was subsequently embodied in legislation.” The report stated that there must be “the maintenance of the white population of South Africa as a pure white race”. It proposed “as an eventual ideal and goal, total apartheid between whites and natives”.

In 1951, it goes without saying, Paul voted to remove coloureds from the common voters’ roll.

To be fair to the man, he did soften his stance in the wake of Sharpeville (which saw 69 peaceful black protesters gunned down by South African police on 21 March 1962), arguing for “conciliation” with blacks and the abolition of pass laws. Not that he actually did anything about it when he was ignored. After Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassination, Sauer campaigned for BJ Vorster to take over. And Vorster was no shrinking violet: an ex-general of the fascist Ossewabrandwag he did much to exacerbate the racial tensions and divisions in South Africa.   

Given all of this, it is quite mind-boggling that a wine with such a “distinguished track record” should bear his name. While we have no doubt Sauer did much for both his beloved Kanonkop and for South African winemaking in general, the decision to name the estate’s flagship wine “after the legendary former owner of Kanonkop who was a statesmen [sic] and wine-lover” has a fetid nose, a prickly mouthfeel and a rancid aftertaste.

What makes the family’s decision even weirder is the fact that they had two far more palatable connections to choose from. While Olive Schreiner may have been discounted because she wasn’t a blood relative, JW Sauer seems an absolute shoo-in. Not only was he the first Sauer to own the land on which Kanonkop lies but he was also one of the most impressive political figures in white Afrikaner history.

Perhaps they were going for layered complexity? DM

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All Comments 6

  • Such jaundiced commentary is rarely seen on DM. If I had the opportunity to rate this article I would call it irrelevant, biased and unhelpful in promoting good relations in this country.

    It is also a bit bitchy, isn’t it? I mean “His mother’s closest friend, Olive (letters suggest they were maybe more than just friends)” – that’s just unnecessary. Come on chaps – you can do better.

    And “shoo-in” (sic)? What is that?

  • Thank you for this informative piece, innuendos aside. I doubt that Germany would favour a wine named after one of Hitler’s cabinet ministers. Why should we not criticise naming a wine after a close comrade of Hendrik Verwoerd?

  • Having walled in Mr Sauer with the evidence of his unworthiness to be referenced in the products of Kanonkop, I find your final paragraph inconsistent. To nominate the more palatable J.W. Sauer to title the label conveniently overlooks someone who was obviously involved in the development of Kanonkop. Not so much a case of grape-picking as one of cherry-picking for the sake of finding someone who was more politically correct.

  • Q1 : Why is DM allowing these guys to punt their book under the guise of their being “opinionistas”?

    Q2 : When can we expect their brilliant interrogation of the continued naming of Chateau Libertas after the official residence of the apartheid presidency?

    A wee drop of “Isithabathaba eMahlamba Ndlopfu” anyone?

  • Shoh, tough crowd. The facts require contemplation – somebody who played such a significant part in our worst period – a legacy far larger than what he did with the farm. I agree that it seems inappropriate to honour him with the ongoing accolade of an award winning wine. We’d raise an eyebrow at a Verwoerd Red, or a Vorster Vonkelwyn.
    The short version is we can do better. Thanks for an informative piece.

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