Citizen Reporter
3 minute read
10 Aug 2021
4:16 pm

Stellenbosch wine tour company lauds Van Riebeek

Citizen Reporter

Do we totally ignore Jan van Riebeek's role in South Africa's wine and food culture, or is there a way to acknowledge his contributions?

Picture: iStock

A trip on a wine tour is not only a sensory experience but a cultural one too. However, the fetishisation of the era of Jan van Riebeek may be a surprise for unsuspecting visitors.

The Dutch settler in 1651 had his eyes on the province arriving months later, his history and legacy is a divisive topic in some quarters of South Africa.

Stellenbosch Wine Route is celebrating 50 years, it now has over 200 wine estates. The wine region became the first winemaking region in SA and contributes over R7 billion in GDP, according to the statement by Lanzerac.

The history of Stellenbosch as a town started in 1679, named by the then governor Simon van der Stel. “Although it can be assumed that the region was home to various indigenous communities before its official naming,” the statement read.

Van der Stel supposedly was a wine lover according to local historian and tour guide, Pietman Retief. South Africa was “classified new wine world country like Australia, California, and Argentina, despite the first grapes being planted by the Dutch settlers in 1655 and the first wine made in 1659”, he said.

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Retief says the Dutch interest in the grape is interesting because they are not associated with wine production.

He says Van Riebeek “had a medical background and must have been conscious of the value of alcohol”. The Stellenbosch wine route has gained massive popularity over the years and would be later known as Lanzerac. The wine culture is indeed associated with the Dutch colonial past because the buildings were built and maintained in Cape Dutch and Victorian style.

History cannot be ignored, but it could be said should such moments in history be hallmarked in such a way?

Former president Jacob Zuma infamously said in 2016 that the country’s problems began when Van Riebeek settled in the country. Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema has continuously criticised the coloniser, calling him an “immoral man” and referencing him on Dubula (shoot the boer) song, which was constituted as hate speech by the Johannesburg Equality Court in 2011.

Van Riebeek’s history

A well-documented part of Van Riebeek’s legacy in the Cape is the forced displacement of the Khoikhoi, who had settled and traded with passing ships for decades before the Dutch arrived. This led to numerous clashes, leading to a 1659 Khoi uprising, and military defeat, resulting in their retreat to the North.

“Today, Stellenbosch and its Wine Route continue to be a massive drawcard for tourists while positively contributing to the country’s economy,” said Retief.

Van Riebeek was also responsible for the import of slaves to the Cape, from Madagascar and Indonesia, resulting in slaves numbering almost as much as the free citizens at the Cape (Dutch Vryburghers) by 1662.

This was due to the increased need for labour, due to Van Riebeek’s decision to cultivate wine, which he was aware could assist in the prevention of scurvy among seafarers. This means that not only is wine part of Van Riebeek’s remaining legacy but so are the descendants of the slaves, in the form of the Cape Malay residents of Cape Town.

Another legacy of his is the former “company gardens” where vegetables were grown but is now a park, as well as the famed Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens’ wild almond hedge, which Van Riebeek’s had planted as a barrier to keep out the Khoi.

Finally, South Africans also have Van Riebeeck to thank for our most famous prison, Robben Island, which is where he banished the leader of the Khoi (Autshumato) in 1658 when he and his people had the audacity to fight back against Van Riebeeck and the Dutch settlers.

Compiled by Sandisiwe Mbhele and Earl Coetzee