Farmer hands over R30m architect-designed village to his 150 workers

It’s compensation without expropriation in the Cape winelands, where a British couple are giving their farmworkers a R30m architect-designed village, complete with a crèche, aftercare and entertainment centre.

David Potter and his wife, Elaine, are giving land away – transferring title deeds to 22 cottages they built on a 4ha site with millionaire views of the surrounding mountains.

The move has stunned the 150-odd staff of Nieuwe Sion farm between Paarl and Franschhoek, who can count among their neighbours Remgro chairman Johann Rupert and – further up the road – billionaires Richard Branson and Analjit Singh.

“They look like guesthouses – we were in tears,” said Diane Fraser, one of the soon-to-be homeowners. “I would never be able to buy my own house.”

Fraser, 50, who lives with a daughter and two granddaughters, said the village development had transformed her life beyond domestic comforts. A former farmworker supervisor, she now works full-time at the village crèche and benefits from regular training courses.

She said the village was close to a clinic and public transport, which meant less walking and improved security. She hopes to continue her career in education. “They’ve sent me on courses to get certificates – it depends on you [to get ahead].”

The village comprises homes of three different sizes, all with solar geysers and ground and ceiling insulation, arranged around a communal field. LED lights and landscaped gardens add to the upmarket feel. Residents will also have management control of the village via a homeowners association that is being formalised.

The Potters, philanthropists who run a charitable foundation, spent years planning the staff village on their table-grape farm in the hope of meaningful social upliftment.

The couple persevered through near-endless government bureaucracy, inspired partly by the farmworkers, who insisted they wanted to stay together.

“When we asked what they wanted, the first thing that everybody agreed was that they wanted to remain together,” Potter said this week from London. “That really crystallised what we did.”

Thus began a monumental effort to find a suitable site and acquire the necessary planning permission, which culminated in provisional rezoning approval earlier this year.

Potter, who grew up in Cape Town, said it was always their intention to assist their staff, since buying the farm in the 1990s.

“The [purchase] came at a time when we could see the changes going on everywhere, and there was an essential need to help and change the living conditions of many of the workers. They are a kind of forgotten group in a way.

“They are not fully into the cash economy even though their history goes back centuries.”

As much as he needed his staff, Potter said he would be thrilled to see future generations pursue alternative livelihoods should they have the means: “Not all of their children will want to be farmworkers – some might want to be accountants. In order to do that one has to break the divide between being tied down by the farm and having access in a much broader way to all the amenities of a modern cash economy.”

Potter is something of an expert in the cash economy, having led a software company that developed the Psion organiser – the world’s “first volume hand-held computer”.

Elaine Potter, also South Africa-born, is a former journalist, author and co-founder of the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She said the Nieuwe Sion farm village, called Lumière (“new dawn”), was not intended to be a model for other farmers. “We are not in a position to dictate to others what they should do,” she said.

“David and I believe that education is the real engine of upliftment and we intend to make a serious effort to improve the facilities and opportunities for the children of Lumière village.”

Farm admin manager Jozua van der Merwe said the staff were coming to terms with their windfall. “I think they are still in denial,” he said. “It was such a lengthy process and there was apprehension over whether they were actually going to get houses.”

Jacobus September, a staff member in charge of Lumière maintenance, said the onus was now on staff to ensure the project worked. “Now we want to build a future for our young people. It is up to us,” he said.

The project has the support of the local Drakenstein municipality, which is acquiring land to develop its own housing settlement in Simondium.

Municipal head of planning and development Lauren Waring said: “Drakenstein municipality is excited about the development undertaken at Nieuwe Sion and we congratulate the owners on this proactive and innovative approach to housing and land reform.”