Bourke-White also travelled to the Western Cape, where she visited the Ryssel wine farm near the town of Worcester. The fertile highlands and valleys of this region were the first part of South Africa to feel the impact of European colonization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as Dutch, German, and French Huguenot settlers displaced the indigenous population. Unlike the more sedentary Bantu-speaking groups further to the East (the Xhosa and Zulu, for example), the Khoi and San pastoral peoples of this corner of Southern Africa were unable to mount much effective resistance to European encroachment.
Dutch settlers, known as “Boers”, relied on the slave trade from the East Indies to supplement the labor of their Khoi and San “servants.” The multiracial descendants of these slaves, the indigenous population, and white settlers made up the “Coloured” population of apartheid South Africa. Though not as restricted as Bantu-speaking Africans, Coloured people were also subjected to segregation, racial laws, and political disfranchisement. Many of them worked as farm laborers in the Western Cape’s vineyards, as these photographs indicate. No doubt, their lives reminded Bourke-White of the black farmworkers she encountered in her trips to the U.S. South during the 1930s.
The idyllic appearance of Ryssel farm could not disguise the brutal reality of child labor and the “tot” system of payment in wine experienced by Coloured workers. As Bourke-White noted, “The white owners of these spreading vineyards are just as interested in getting cheap labor as are the mine owners.” Even children received regular “tots” of wine. “Not only does this save the winegrower money” Bourke-White observed, “but it habituates the youngest vineyard workers to a dependence on alcohol.”
“Nothing had made me so angry since I had photographed `untouchable’ children working in the tanneries
of South India.”