Pubdate: Fri, 09 Jul 1999
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Suzanne Daley, New York Times



Magrieta Manus and her husband, Bastiaan, have lived and worked on the same
vineyard here for more than 40 years, making do, with their nine children,
in two dilapidated rooms set on such a steep hill that their rocky, slanted
dirt floor is usually damp from the rain.

They work in the fields for less than $18 a week and, until two years ago,
when the farm changed hands, they were given free wine, too, under a system
started centuries ago as a way of addicting laborers to alcohol and keeping
them working for virtually nothing.

Bastiaan Manus received a full bottle a day. Magrieta Manus about half that.
On the weekends, they bought their own, usually drinking until they passed

Nowadays, things are a bit tougher in their household, because they have no
free alcohol. On Fridays, Magrieta Manus is so eager for her wine that she
buys a 60-cent bottle to drink right there at the liquor store down the
road. Then she makes her way home with a five-liter container that has cost
her one-fifth of her week's salary. In the summer months, when she has no
work as a seasonal laborer, the money comes from her husband's salary and
makes an even bigger hole in the family's meager budget.

Keeping workers drunk with free alcohol, a system called the dop -- the
Afrikaans word for a tot -- has been illegal for decades and is now publicly
repudiated by the $1.7 billion South African wine industry, which is very
conscious of its image and of past mistakes. Some surveys suggest 20 percent
of the farms in Western Cape Province still use the system. Others say the
extent is even less.

But experts say the end of the old system is ushering in a new set of
hardships, and new research shows an alarming rate of fetal alcohol syndrome
in workers' children.

Workers are buying the liquor themselves, running up debts and leaving less
money in the household for food, clothing and school fees. And rather than
drinking on the farms with their wives, many men go to illegal bars, called
shebeens, where knife fights are frequent and prostitutes hover.

``You can't just stop it and expect everything to be all right,'' said Dr.
Dennis Viljoen, who heads the human genetics department at the University of
the Witwatersrand and has been studying the effects of alcohol on workers
for years. ``When you talk to the workers these days, a lot of the women say
they were better off under the dop system. The men were at home then. They
didn't go off and spend all the money and get in fights.''

In some ways, the damage that the dop system did is only now beginning to be
measured. In Wellington, a region of fertile fields, stately farmhouses and
run-down workers' quarters, a group of researchers from the University of
Cape Town Foundation for Alcohol Related Research has conducted a survey to
examine virtually all the children entering the first grade in the local
public schools. The researchers found that the rates of fetal alcohol
syndrome might be the highest in the world.

The study showed that 11 percent of farm workers' children were affected,
including Magrieta Manus' youngest boy, Jacob. By comparison, the rate in
the United States is 0.2 percent.

Viljoen said that even among groups with high levels of alcoholism like
American Indians, the rate is 2 percent. Moreover, the researchers said they
believed that the study probably undercounted incidences, because in many
cases children failed to thrive and died before reaching school.

Magrieta Manus, a tiny woman of 58 with a deeply lined face and few teeth,
said that she knew that alcohol could damage her child when she was
pregnant, but that she had never tried to stop drinking because she did not
think that she could.

When she realized what alcohol had done to her son, she tried to warn her
pregnant daughter. But without result.

Outside her room, the daughter, Magrieta Kruger, 27, was washing laundry in
plastic buckets, cradling her fussy daughter in one arm. She proudly showed
off the baby, Jasmine. But a university researcher, Julie Croxford, said the
infant, who had a tiny head, had also clearly been damaged by alcohol abuse.
At nine months, the child weighed 7 1/2 pounds, the figure for an average

A tiny head is just one symptom of fetal alcohol syndrome. Mental
retardation, abnormal facial features, problems with the central nervous
system and behavioral difficulties are other signs.

Fighting alcohol abuse among the farm workers is not easy, experts say,
because the drinking has become an integral part of the culture. The
drinking was not only a form of recreation in a bleak existence, but also a
form of resistance; the farmers were excluded from their drunken world.

``It was in some ways a form of rebellion,'' Croxford said. ``It's a very
complicated thing.''

The drinking is so severe that stories abound of malnourished children being
given wine because there is nothing else in the house. One child, for whom
the researchers are trying to find a school, was found as an infant on the
side of the road with a baby bottle full of wine. Her mother was later hit
by a car and killed as she wandered into the road in a drunken stupor.

The baby, Monica, is now 9. But she has a head the size of a toddler and an
IQ that will never allow her to read or write.

``It's not something that farmers have taken particularly seriously,'' said
Nicki Taylor, a researcher at the Center for Rural Legal Studies, a workers'
advocacy group. ``Farmers have been faced with the problem for so many years
that they do not see it as a problem.''

Farmers' associations are extremely touchy on the subject of the dop, which
has always been concentrated in the Western Cape, where most of the wine is
made. But it has been used on all kinds of farms. In fact, experts say it is
far more likely to be found on fruit or vegetable farms, because the wine
industry is highly sensitive about its image.

The giant wine growers' cooperative, known by its local acronym of KWV,
declined to talk about the subject, referring questions to an
industry-supported research group called the Industry Association for
Responsible Alcohol Use. The head of the organization, Dr. Chan Makan, said
no members of the cooperative used the dop any more. He agreed that the
changes had brought new troubles.

``It is a dangerous thing to say,'' Makan said. ``But in some ways, things
are worse now.''

Schalk Visser ended the dop on his farm in Stellenbosch in 1983. Some
workers simply quit. Others ran up huge tabs at shebeens. To make sure that
they had food, Visser started a credit system for them at a food store on
his farm. A generation later, he said, 40 percent of the workers drink. But
when the subject comes up with other farmers, he added, many still believe
that the dop system is better.

``They say that ending it doesn't work,'' Visser said. ``They say the
workers just get in trouble at the shebeens. But for me, that at least is
the worker's choice.''

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