If there is to be a doyenne of the South African wine industry, Margaret Newman is it. The sprightly 90-year-old’s life is a veritable reflection of the metamorphosis of the sector, as it is of the challenges faced by women in general, and women of colour in particular. Her parents and siblings played a leading role in the local Holy Trinity Anglican Church, school and the wider Paarl community. “I am a woman of great faith,” says Margaret, ascribing her peaceful, cheerful demeanour to her longevity. Living alone in her lovely garden cottage in a Cape Town suburb, she is proudly independent. “I drive, cook, clean, scrub, even sweep the street outside my home,” says the impeccably mannered nonagenarian.
Eschewing the culture of entitlement that has become commonplace in contemporary society, she adds, “I don’t wait for government to do things for me. I have two hands and two feet, and am quite capable of looking after myself.” A statement that is telling of her life’s journey and her ability to raise herself by her own bootstraps through dint of hard work, creativity and perseverance. Born into a large family in Die Ou Tuin in Paarl, the young Margaret was particularly keen on ballet and recalls with fondness her solit train trips into Cape Town at the age of 12 to attend dance class. “My Mom gave me instructions of how to get to the station and the number of stations I will have to pass before getting to Cape Town, which she said was the final destination and where I should get off.” It is perhaps this lesson in fearless independence learnt at a tender age that was to shape the rest of her life’s journey. The highlight of her dance career was performing for Queen Elizabeth II, on her visit to Cape Town, sharing the stage with the celebrated Johaar Mosaval, the District Six-born dancer who went on to become Senior Principal Dancer of the Royal Dance Academy.
Margaret went on to obtain her junior certificate, followed by a teaching diploma and commenced her working life as a teacher at the age of 17. “I taught arithmetic, geography, history and physical training in a career spanning 10 years,” she recalls. She left teaching and married a
medical practitioner, and at odd times assisted in the surgery while raising three children. However, this union was to be ended after a decade and Margaret retained custody and the family home, but had to fend for herself and her young family financially single-handedly. Hoping to
return to teaching, and with changes to the curricula, she enrolled for further studies and was fondly called “Mother” by her classmates, who were half her age. A year-long stint at Athlone High in Cape Town was however to be ended with her entrée into the wine industry.
She approached Godfrey de Bruyn, whom she knew through her other community activities, for a position at the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging or KWV, to play a role in wine education and uplifting the community. As a result, she was offered a position as senior information officer, which she took up after two years due to completing her teaching commitment. a role into which she grew and flourished. Not daunted by the all-white, male leadership of the company she flourished and introduced many innovations to the practice of wine tasting, including cooking with wine demonstrations, and host and hostess evenings. She also hosted the first wine tasting in Soweto in 1975 and recalls how she was instructed not to serve premium wines. She disputed the reason for the change, and continued with the wine tasting as before which was accompanied by a three-course meal. As this was first for the company, two executive managers joined to experience the event first-hand.
At KWV she spearheaded many community-based projects, the pinnacle of which was the annual Tennis Coaching Clinics and regular art workshops for children from Coloured primary schools in the winelands. A seven-year stint at KWV, where she introduced a host of other functions, and implemented what was the first food and wine festival which she managed successfully for three consecutive years, was to be ended with an offer from Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW), or Distell as it is currently known. Despite being warned that she is moving from an Afrikaner bastion to that which was deemed English stronghold, she nevertheless took the plunge, and joined SFW as Assistant Consumer Marketing Manager in 1979.
Initially recruited to train 54 national wine advisors in a new initiative, Margaret was to rise up the corporate vine where she was seconded to the export department as the International Client Coordinator to take charge of the foreign guests attending the much-vaunted annual Nederburg
Auction for three successive years. However, her steady rise through the company was not be unencumbered by the envious eyes of her white colleagues. With a company car and travelling internationally often, the final straw came with her first-class trip on board the Astor cruise liner to Southampton. Here she innovatively introduced wine tasting courses for the passengers on board.
After having spent six years in that position, she was brought to book on spurious allegations. Disappointed by the betrayal of trust in her and her abilities, Margaret opted to resign, thus ending a trail-blazing career in the industry. From here she was to join Old Mutual and market their products. “I recall that almost always in those days, decisions around insurance policies were left to the male-counterpart in the household. I decided to change that perception, and implemented a strategy aimed at women, as well as on joint consultations, and marketed the very lucrative unit trust products to good effect.” It was from this role that she went into retirement where she continued her life passion of community involvement, especially focused on the elderly. “I love people and sometimes drive out to meet elderly people and inspire them with my message that they should never own their ailments. By owning an ache or pain, you become it.” Today, she lives a charmed life tending to her garden, writing poetry and her memoirs. Undaunted today, as she was as a fearless 12-year-old boarding a train alone, may her joie de vivre spring eternal, for herself and as an inspiration to those that follow.
– Nirode Bramdaw, African Sun Media