Ramifications of South Africa’s Dop System by Alexandra Larkin

This article was written by Alexandra Larkin and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project


This essay sheds light on the development of the dop system and its lasting effects on Coloured workers, their children, and their wives in addition to community health and poverty. These negative results only perpetuate the cycle of poverty in Coloured farm worker communities. The dop system of primarily male farm labourers has created a generation of disadvantaged youths and abused women due to the alcohol dependency that can be accredited to the dop system.


Dop system, Afrikaners, Coloured, Western Cape, wine, tot,

Ramifications of South Africa’s Dop System

In order to provide a long-term remedy for a problem, one must fully understand the roots of an issue and its effects. The dop system and its lasting effects continue to plague parts of South Africa, particularly in the province of the Western Cape. The dop system is one in which employers pay their labourers with cheap wine, or dops. Today, the dop system is no longer legal in South Africa, but alcoholism remains one of the major challenges facing the health services in the Western Cape (London).A number of farms in the region continue to provide workers with alcohol as part of their conditions of service without repercussions from the government. Estimates of the current prevalence of the dop system range from less than 2% to 20% of labour payments in the Western Cape (London). Even after the banishment of the dop system, alcohol dependency among farm workers continued to play a major role in trapping the farm workers in a cycle of poverty and dependence (London). The adverse health and developmental impacts of the dop system and related alcohol abuse are prevalent among rural farming communities. Communities report that alcohol-related trauma, exceptionally high rates of TB, child and adult malnutrition, and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) are common in the Western Cape (London). In addition, social problems associated with alcohol, including child abuse, violence against women and family disruption, are ‘major obstacles to health and social services for farm residents’ (London). Today, there are many non-profit programmes to help lessen alcohol dependency in the Western Cape and the rest of South Africa. By reviewing the background of the dop system, including the unhealthy relationship between Afrikaner farmers and Coloured labourers, we can better understand the origin and causes responsible for the tragic alcohol abuse in present day South Africa’s Western Cape farming communities and the disease’s effects on home lives for farm labourers, their wives, children, and descendants in order to hopefully develop a solution.

Colonial expansion contributed to the development of Afrikaner farms and the dop system in South Africa. The British took over the Cape from the Dutch in 1795. Seven years later, the colony was returned to the Dutch government, only to be ruled over by the British again in 1806 with the help of an alliance between Holland and Napoleon (South Africa History). Later, governors of the Cape Colony encouraged immigration from Cape Town, and, in the early 1700s, independent farmers, called trekboers, began to push north and east. As a result, the indigenous Khoisan started losing land and were forced to serve the colonists (South Africa History). Colonial expansion to the north was prevalent. The Griquas, an early name for people of mixed descent, started the expansion westward and were soon followed by trekboers, who crossed the Gariep in search of pastures in the 1830s (485, Cape Colony). During this time in the 1830s, there was a large-scale exodus of Dutch-speaking farmers, which became known as the

Figure 1. Afrikaner on his farm, 2012 Image source

Afrikaner Trek (485, Cape Colony). The communities that formed as a result were recognized as politically independent. The independence and strength demonstrated through the Great Trek caused the group to think of themselves as ‘Afrikaner, not British' (485, Cape Colony). The mass exodus of Afrikaners through the Afrikaner Trek was what prompted the establishment of independent Arikaner farms during colonial expansion, where the dop system would be born.

Most Afrikaner farms were and are still located in the Western Cape. Afrikaners were originally low skilled, uneducated Dutch settlers that came to South Africa in search of work. Their lack of the necessary industrial skills provided a ‘seedback for future radical nationalism that would later escalate into a larger issue during the South African War’, which lasted from 1899 to 1902 (34, Shillington). Akrikaners often produced and still produce wine, grapes and other fruits on their farms mostly in the Western Caper, where their largest population group resides (Ferguson, Lecture). Afrikaners are also referred to as Boers, which means farmers in the Afrikaner language (South Africa History). Afrikaners developed because of their shared belief that they were God's chosen people to cure the Coloureds from their lives that Afrikaners considered to be uncivilized (Ferguson, Lecture). Also, the Afrikaners thought themselves to be ‘benevolent but firm protectors and disciplinarians’ (Duff). All in all, the history of the Afrikaners can help explain how their ideology might lead to the development of the dop system and is repercussions.

The Afrikaner ideology, culture, and strong sense of nationalism caused the dop system and its effects to be long-lived. The progressive former rugby hero and Afrikaner farmer in the1980s, Jan Boland Coetzee, demonstrates the Afrikaner belief that farm labourers are inferior when he commented that, ‘Coloured labourers were like children ... didn't know what was good for them, [and] only wanted their daily dop (tot) of wine’ (Adhikari, 156). This common misconception among Afrikaners perpetuates the stereotype that Coloured people have a weakness for alcohol (Adhikari, 157). There is even a well-known joke that demonstrates the unacceptable stereotyping towards Coloureds in South Africa. The joke asks, ‘what is the Coloured peoples' contribution to philosophy?’ and the response is‘I drink therefore I am!’ (Adhikari, 157). The joke insinuates that Coloureds in South Africans had no contribution to philosophy due to their inferior abilities and addiction to alcohol. All in all, the background and historical contrast between these two different groups of people contributed to the emergence of stereotypes concerning the Coloured labourers’ alcoholism and unhealthy home lives for them and their families.

The journey of those that became workers paid by the dop system also helps explain the origin of the troubled farming communities and the beginning causes of the widespread their alcoholism and domestic abuse. Even though a small Cape Coloured elite was formed in the nineteenth century after the 1834 abolition of slavery throughout South Africa, the majority of the previously enslaved people and their descendants remained oppressed labourers, especially on Western and Southern Cape farms (311, Cape Colony). Large numbers did not move to Cape Town where there was better-paid work in the Cape Colony’s burgeoning industry because of the labourers’ dependency on the Afrikaners established by the Afrikaner dop systems’ unhealthy promotion of alcohol (Petal). Some farms even provided wine five times a day, creating an extremely problematic dependency that would soon cause long-term developmental issues for farming communities (Gossage). The history of the farm labourers provides insight on the cycle of oppression and domestic problems in the farming communities by describing what caused the labourers to continue working under the dop system and stay. Overall, the background and history between the Afrikaners and the Coloureds of South Africa assists in demonstrating the development of the controversial and problematic dop system that has caused a cycle of poverty and abusive home lives for African farmers and their families.

The historical events leading up to the dop system’s arrival clarify why it became common practice and how its effects would cause future tribulations. During colonial expansion of South Africa, many Coloured men became migrant laborers on white farms first, then workers in the gold mines of the Witwatersrand after 1886, and in the diamond fields in the 1870s (484-5, Republic of). The existence of slavery in the Cape influenced the dop system that even though the indigenous South Africans were not formally enslaved by the Afrikaner farms, the diamond fields, or the gold mines outside the Cape (364, Shillington). The first wave of Coloured farm labourers were often paid with the sacks of cheap wine, called dops, produced on the farms they worked primarily in the Western Cape. The labourers were and are descendants of Europeans and various African groups, including slaves, farmers, sailors, prostitutes, Malaysians, and Khoi-San. The majority of these workers were descendants of slaves and came to be known as South African Coloureds (Ferguson). The dop system was used by the Afrikaner farms to control these men and obtain consistent labour. These norms made inadequate conditions seem commonplace. The majority of Coloured workers that stayed on the farms from the first wave of workers were trapped with their families in the unhealthy, manipulative system.

The dop system was developed to ensure that the Africans did not threaten the livelihood of the Afrikaners, contributing to farm labourer community problems. When the dop system began during the first wave of Afrikaner farm settlements in the 1830s, Afrikaners used it to secure their economic success and establish themselves as the power holders. The Afrikaners’ then used their advantage in primarily in Western Cape commercial farming to empower the entire white population (367, Shillington). Many Afrikaners were particularly threatened by a small number of Coloured farm workers that took advantage of the new opportunities to excel in producing for the evolving market in the Eastern Cape during the last two decades of the nineteenth century (484-5, Republic of). However, the strong sense of ownership and supremacy over those trapped in the corrupt and unjust system enabled the Afrikaners to excel without the threat of those that came before them. The system that was developed to achieve economic success for a group of people that believed they were fundamentally better than all else has created a multitude of social and economic problems today.

The labourer’s limited ability to escape the destructive dop system contributed to domestic abuse, alcoholism and serious community development issues. As the laborers lacked opportunity to change their way of life, the heavy drinking at home contributed to prevalent domestic abuse and robbed children of opportunity to leave the life of alcoholism that their parents lived (Patel). The National Center of Biotechnology Information affirms that domestic abuse related to alcoholism contributed and still contributes to the ‘general breakdown of cohesive society’ in these farming communities (London, L). Moreover, the same dependency that ensures the Afrikaners cheap future labor also destroys the hope for a healthy family dynamic and the development of a pathway out of oppression and alcohol dependency.

Today, the present effects of the dop system and its continued use are highly controversial issues. In March 2009 owners of two wine farms voiced their concerns that the popular press often criticized all wine farmers in the area for continuing to give cheap wine to their workers (Gossage). The farm owners and many others were not pleased when they were reprimanded for contributing to the problem of FASD (Gossage). However, the people of South Africa are striving to void their home of the problem. Recently, Dookoom, a popular South African musician, did demonstrate effectively that the dop system is a sensitive issue and one that is of great importance. Dookoom’s s rap song video' ‘Larney Jou Poes’ released in October, 2014 caused controversy because of its ability to evoke anger and extreme protest (Watch Larney). The video depicts farm revolts against the dop system and mistreatment of labourers (Watch Larney). The emotion and genuine protest against the system is achieved through its visual footage of Coloured labourers developing alcohol dependency as they are given their dops of wine in the video (Watch Larney). The music video depicts the Coloured farm workers feeding out of the wine bags, called papsaks as if it were liquid gold (Watch Larney). The visuals create a very emotional response and clear illustration of the remaining issues and frustration concerning the dop system. The anger captured in the video effectively communicates the level importance the issue of the dop system and its effects are today.

Today, Alcoholism caused by the dop system remains prevalent. The existence of heavy drinking after the prevalence of the dop system is illustrated clearly by the study of five Western Cape Province communities that concluded that ‘men are 75.1% likely to drink, while women are 65.8% likely’ (Gossage). The high percentages of drinkers in the area suggest a large-scale issue that will take time to remedy. Also, the fact that men are more likely to drink suggests a relation to the dop system, which paid primarily men. The study also reveals that 83.1% of farm labourers are ‘drinkers’ and that 66.8% of individuals in other occupations are ‘drinkers’ (Gossage). The higher percentage of farm laborers also insinuates that this tendency was a result of the Afrikaner farms’ dop system. In conclusion, the prevalence of alcohol abuse was sparked by the dop system and is quite serious today. Raj Petal, an activist and journalist writes: ‘everybody is aware of the devastation caused by the dop system but government has not introduced any major rehabilitation or FAS awareness programmes’ in his current article on the sop system (Petal). There are so many indicators of the high demand for help and resolution needed by communities affected. He then shares that Foundation for Alcohol Related Research concluded in a four year long study that 54 out of 818 children tested had Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (Petal). This sad statistic demonstrates the intensity of the dop system and its influence on society. The struggle of many South African families with a member affected by the dop system and alcoholism persists today.

Many non-governmental organisations have been formed in order to help solve the issue of rampant alcoholism throughout South Africa’s farming communities. Alcoholism strains relationships at home and robs families of the opportunity to escape this system. The questionable system only encourages continued alcohol dependency in future generations. The plethora of nongovernmental organizations founded to help with this current issue indicates the severity of the dop system’s implications. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Information Centre, or FASIC, is based in Cape Town and managed by foster parents of a child affected by FAS at home due to this terrible system (FASDSA). The Pebbles Project works with wine farm workers and township communities and the many children whose lives are affected by alcohol (FASDSA). SAMRC, the South African Medical Research Council, is currently involved in an intervention program with FARR to prevent FASD in the long run (FASDSA). Stellenbosch University’s Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology is funding a ‘Prospective Study On The Role Of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure In SIDS and Stillbirths’ (FASDSA). Stellenbosch University’s Department of Psychiatry is also developing a research study aimed to prevent ‘FAS in communities at risk’ (FASDS). FARR, the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research, was created to focus on training, prevalence studies, clinical diagnosis, prevention, and interventions in at risk communities (FASDSA). The Dopstop Association was founded to help wine farm worker communities on all alcohol-related issues (FASDSA). DOPSTOP’s goals are to end the dop system, prevent alcohol abuse, and reduce excessive alcohol consumption in farms in the region by providing social alternatives and raising awareness of the dangers associated with alcohol abuse (FASDSA). FASER-SA, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Epidemiology Research – South Africa, is dedicated to prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Prevention (FASDSA). The number of nongovernment formed organizations demonstrates the demand for help with alcoholism caused by the dop system as well as the lack of involvement from the government. The ARA, or Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use, demonstrates that South Africa is still suffering from the devastating affects of the dop system. The organization was developed to promote awareness of the dangers of alcohol. It aims to prevent the negative effects and dependency alcohol causes in society (ARA). In addition, the Soul City’s Phuza Wize Drink Safe Live Safe Alcohol-Free Schools Cmpaign is led by the 5300 ‘Soul buddyz clubs’, inspired by the ‘Soul Buddyz 5 television drama’, was founded to help prevent children from the adverse effects of alcoholism (Pretorius). Soul Buddyz 5 is geared toward children ages 8 to 14-years-old (Pretorius). The programme shows the impact of alcohol on children by following the story of a group of children who attempt to rid their school and community of alcohol’ (Pretorius). This remarkable amount of non-profit organisations illustrates the high demand for help in South Africa to help remedy the dop system’s effects on it’s victim’s health and the home life.

The dop system causes not only alcoholism, but also additional health problems. The current event article ‘A Cup of Coffee’ shares studies concerning the health and well being of the people of South Africa and connects these concerns directly with the dop system. It also captures the current anger and frustration still felt in South Africa because of the problematic system of paying farmers in alcohol. The article explains that wine farm workers do not earn enough to live comfortably (Duff). The article states that stunted growth is commonplace, mentioning that a study done by the University of Cape Town in the 1990s revealed that, ‘farmworkers in the province are, on average, an inch (2.5cm) shorter than city dwellers’ due to their limited form of payment under the dop system (Duff). The author, Duff, shares that ‘some Western Cape farmworkers subsist on little else but black coffee during the last few days of each month’ (Duff). She affirms that the limited funds that labourers earn cause serious health concerns (Duff). This discovery implies that the lack of sufficient payment to these hardworking men has caused developmental issues to both them and their children.She continues to say that malnutrition is prevalent because food is scarce in the Bushveld and because of the children’s unbalanced diets (Duff). She also adds that a staple to farm workers’ diets, the Mielie meal, has a low nutritive value (Duff). In addition, milk and fresh meat are scarcely found or consumed (Duff). Fats are rarely consumed by working men that work many strenuous hours a day and Wheaten bread is not a large contributor to their diets either (Duff). The dop system’s insufficient payment to farm labourers caused and continues to cause terrible nutrition in the farming communities.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information proves the relationship between the dop system and many health problems through their expansive knowledge on the negative health risks of the dop system. The center comments that even though the system was prohibited, ‘the arrangement by which workers are given alcohol' as a benefit of employment appears to persist’ (London, L). Today, a few farms practice the dop system openly, but the complications of the past institutionalization of devastating alcohol consumption are much more widespread. This heavy alcohol consumption, caused by the dop system, is ‘directly injurious to the health of farm workers and their families’ and ‘places them at risk to various social and environmental hazards’ (London, L). Such environmental dangers are illustrated in a case of pesticide poisoning in which 24 workers were poisoned when given wine contaminated with the carbamate insecticide aldicarb (London, L). The case illustrates the ‘ongoing application of the dop system on farms in South Africa and the interaction between social factors and chemical exposures amongst farm workers’ (London, L). The National Center for Biotechnology Information highlights the continued social control of rural farm workers and their families heavy drinking and its relation to the dop system. The center reiterates that the system ‘poses a major challenge to the public health authorities in South Africa’ (London, L). South African health authorities must now redirect health services to this human right problem and the health needs of South Africa’s modern day farming communities.

The dop system has not only created health concerns, but it continues an unhealthy relationship between the Coloured workers and their Afrikaner employers. Relationships between farm-owners and workers have not been simply unhealthy because they were ‘shaped by the discourses of paternalism’ (Duff). Afrikaners claim they are grateful be ‘protecting’ their ‘appreciative population of on-farm servants’ (Duff).Also, the source of economic success of the white people can be attributed to the ‘hierarchical relationship, marginalizing and silencing the voices [of the laborers]’ (Duff).Duff reports, that she ‘saw which farms had legions of children not in school’ (Duff). The lack of educational opportunities limits the children of farm workers’ ability to find other forms of work. These children then grow up to be a large part of the next generation of dop system victims. She reports again, that currently it is likely that farmers still pay their workers in the form of alcohol (Duff).This subject matter is still pretty intensive even today and there is a lot of anger associated with the corrupt form of payment.

All in all, the dop system’s presence and its contributions to Alcoholism and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and numerous other social and health related problems have left a debilitating mark on South African history and negatively affected the homes of today’s South Africans. Evidence provided suggests the need of government intervention, which has been limited so far. The government has attempted to eradicate all forms of payment in alcohol, but has not provided any form of assistance program directed to helping families affected by farms that continue this practice undetected by the South African government. Recognition of the dop system is growing around the world, and hopefully the attention will help in the meantime. It is upsetting to see farm workers stereotyped as lazy alcoholics, when they were, in truth, taught to perceive alcohol as a reward, but the world will hopefully learn from these events and learn how to prevent similar issues in the future.

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Last updated : 12-Jun-2015

This article was produced for South African History Online on 12-Jun-2015