“With God in one hand, anything is possible,” says Katy September, reflecting on a life in which the hard knocks were overcome with faith and a will to succeed.
The recounting of her life is a veritable reflection of the challenges most female farmworkers encounter and a lesson in overcoming them. Her dream of joining the navy was thwarted early on in life, and like many young girls in the Cape winelands, she was forced to join her parents as farmworkers.
“Growing up on the Kromme Rhee Farm, I used to swim in the dams and developed a love for the water. In my final school year, I applied to join the SA Navy, in order to chart a new path for women of colour from the winelands,” she says nostalgically.
However, this dream was to be shattered as the young Katy fell pregnant and was forced into a young motherhood and a menial job on the neighbouring Simonsig Wine Estate.
“I was my grandmother’s child and it was a big disappointment to her and to my parents when this happened. However, my parents stood by me throughout my life and supported me and my children in whatever way they could,” she reflects with gratitude.
She was engaged for a short while, but on realising that the man she was to marry was also engaged to another, she threw her engagement ring into the lake, thus symbolically drowning her dream of joining the navy and of a happily married life.
“Although that hurt me deeply, I decided to make the most of my life and fend for my daughter. I am glad I am a woman. I’m the only one in my name and there is no one else like me,” she says, steadfastly.
Being raised by her grandmother, Katy developed a keen sense of keeping a clean house and to this day is fastidious. “I take pride and time in making sure my house is spotless, and have thankfully handed this down from my grandmother to my two daughters too.”
With the help of her parents, she got her first job in 1990 cleaning the cellar at Simonsig and scrubbing the bottling apparatus and plastic flexicans used to press grapes. It was a hard toil for which she was paid R45 per week. Her career started at the beginning of the bottling process and today she works in labelling and packaging. Katy’s love for her work and her fellow colleagues is what drives and motivates her.
She worked diligently in the cellar for more than a decade and represented the workers on the estate as their Shop Steward. In 2005, being acutely aware of the challenges faced by farmworkers in the winelands, she joined the Sikhula Sonke Trade Union. Sikhula Sonke is a women-led, independent farmworkers union. Its focus includes issues such as labour rights, domestic violence, food insecurity and alcohol abuse.
“I joined Sikhula Sonke as a recruiter and worked tirelessly building the subscriber base to make it a voice of the farmworkers in general and women in particular,” she says, proudly.
The campaigning involved lots of weary travel, with her three young daughters in tow. “I used to go to neighbouring farms and to winelands towns on my recruitment campaigns and was often forced to sleep over so as to maximise the impact of the recruitment campaign.”
In growing Sikhula Sonke, Katy rose steadily through the ranks to become its President. In her leadership role, she assisted in growing the membership to more than 5000 employed and unemployed workers including those living on farms in Stellenbosch, Grabouw, Villiersdorp, Franschhoek, Ceres, Rawsonville, Paarl and Wellington.
Reflecting on her role as a unionist, Katy recalls a campaign in 2009 as a highlight. “We launched a campaign in 2009 to boycott the National General Election. It was the No Land! No House! No Vote! Campaign,” she recalls, noting with regret that not much has changed regarding the circumstances of the farmworkers since.
Sikhula Sonke eventually folded and in 2017 Katy, together with other women labour activists launched the Society Development Trade Union, which today represents more than 4500 farmworkers in the Cape Winelands. Like many other union leaders in the industry, Katy was ‘marked’ and was often called to book for the most trivial of reasons, a battle she has had to contend with all her working life.
“Apartheid is still very much alive in the wine industry. Ironically, the previous generation of wine farmers were a little more caring towards their workers. I know this may sound like a generalisation, but the current crop of farmers is arrogant and seem to entrench the ‘ons en julle baasmanskap’. The ‘ou baas’ has been replaced by the ‘klein baas’.”
It was her former employer who enrolled her membership and paid her subscription for Women in Wine. Women in Wine was established and founded in 2006 by a group of twenty women, Katy being one of them. All of the members have backgrounds in the wine industry that had a common dream – giving women, especially farm workers and their families, a share in the industry.
Women in Wine only sources wine from farms that comply with socio-economic legislation with specific reference to ethical and environmental practices, employment conditions, skills development and training, as well as those that address aspects of Black Economic Empowerment.
Today, Women in Wine has a membership in excess of 200. This opportunity afforded Katy her first trip on board an aeroplane, and though it was a short flight to Kimberly, she remembers vividly the trepidation with which she boarded the flight. She was also exposed for the first time to wine tasting and the different cultivars, a lesson not many farmworkers are afforded. Also, it was her first experience in receiving a dividend and the ability to engage with annual financial statements, reflecting the real empowerment of her participation.
Katy is a natural mentor to younger women she comes into contact with. “We were raised in a community where we look out for each other. I often counsel young women and girls as if they are my own children.”
In defining her driving force, Katy is resolute that it is her three daughters, whom she raised single-handedly. “I live for my family and want to ensure that they have a better life than I did. Hopefully to create some means that could become the generational wealth we all dream of creating.”
– Nirode Bramdaw, African Sun Media