The DA leader writes on the newspaper’s recent report on “Baby Thomas” and the “dop system” in the Wellington area

We cannot be sidetracked in the fight against Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

Helen Zille – 15 March 2015

It is unforgivable that the most common cause of mental disability in the world is 100% preventable.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is caused by mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy. On this spectrum, the most extreme form is known as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Alcohol crosses the placental barrier during pregnancy and causes severe mental and physical stunting in the foetus, affecting growth, weight, head size, facial features, brain and organ development. This damage is completely irreversible.

FAS affects more people than Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida and Autism combined. At around 6% of the population, South Africa has the highest incidence of FAS in the world. This is a shameful statistic.

Much of South Africa’s FAS problem can be traced back to the infamous dop system — the practice of paying farm wages partially in cheap wine, resulting in a compliant, addicted and captive workforce. Outlawed in 1960, this practice is believed to have continued, in pockets, right up to the dawn of our democracy.

Deliberately trapping people in crippling addiction is a terrible crime. But when this is done to women of childbearing age, thereby inevitably resulting in any children they may have being delivered into a life of hopeless disability, it is simply unforgivable. It warrants the harshest sanction that the law and society can hand out.

The Western Cape government has committed substantial resources to the fight against FAS, and the Department of Social Development works tirelessly in the affected communities. But as with most social problems — and perhaps more so with FAS than any other — the solution lies in strong partnerships, where everyone has a role to play.

From government to NGOs to farmers, the media, the medical profession — and of course, the workers themselves — everyone must play their part to fight and ultimately eradicate FAS.

Naturally, when I saw an article in the Cape Times of 5 March titled “Foetal alcohol syndrome’s sad legacy”, and subtitled “Tragedy of Baby Thomas”, I was deeply concerned. It purported to be the tale of a baby boy born called Thomas, born to an alcoholic mother called Rose, near Wellington in the Western Cape. Rose was described in the article as “a product of the Western Cape farming community’s infamous dop system”.

Reports like these can be invaluable in assisting social workers who deal with FAS-affected communities. They can help them identify a child in need of special care — some of whom still slip through the social safety net. And, should there be a farm where criminal labour practices (like paying workers in wine) still occur, articles like this should help us root out the perpetrators.

But two aspects of the piece made me immediately suspicious: The story of “Baby Thomas” is told with no clear time frame and scant details, making it impossible to gauge whether Thomas is still a baby, a school-age child or even a grown man.

Secondly, and perhaps more worrying, the piece seemed very familiar — as if I had read the exact same FAS description and statistics before. And it didn’t take long to track this down. A piece written by a researcher called Eric Graham, and published on the World Socialist Web Site in August 2012, was in large parts identical. At least half of the Cape Times piece was lifted verbatim from Graham’s article. The only additional information was the opening vague anecdote about Baby Thomas and a quote near the end attributed to an “anonymous” source, stating that payment by wine “is still common practice on many farms” in the Wellington area.

If true, this statement would warrant prominence on the paper’s front page. I immediately followed the matter up with the social workers of the Western Cape government who work very closely with farming communities (particularly near Wellington), and who have long experience in dealing with alcoholism and FAS. It is hard to believe that they would not have picked up the criminal practice of farmers still paying their workers in wine.

My office also immediately contacted the newspaper, requesting any information that could help us track down Baby Thomas to ensure that he is receiving the right support and suitable education. We also requested assistance to identify farms where the “dop system” is still allegedly being practiced.

The written response from the editor was one word, written in capital letters: NO.

When pressed for an explanation, we were simply told that the newspaper wanted to protect their sources. Of course, we didn’t need the name of the source in order to help Baby Thomas or to prosecute offending farmers.

The article was presumably written to highlight “Baby Thomas'” plight and to expose the fact that the “dop system” is still being practiced on Western Cape farms. So (apart from using a pseudonym for the baby) why cover up the details? It would be like “exposing” corruption, without revealing the deals or the people involved. It would defeat the point of the expose.

Furthermore, failure to report a suspected crime against a child is, in itself, a crime. Perhaps the Cape Times will report to the police the details of the farms in the Wellington district, where unborn children are allegedly being put at severe risk of permanent disability by illegal labour practices; and where such children, when born, are not receiving the care and support they require.

Even if the newspaper is not legally obligated to divulge any information to the Western Cape government, surely there is a moral obligation to help? Particularly when the tone of the piece is deeply concerned and sympathetic towards “Baby Thomas” and the victims of the allegedly ongoing “dop system”. If the paper is so dismissive of our requests for assistance to find this child and the alleged perpetrators of crimes against similar children, one must ask the question: what exactly is at play here?

As a former journalist, I would be the first to accept that reporters must protect their sources (and in this case we did not even need to know the name of the source to get our job done). But I was also taught, from my first days in cadet journalism school, never to abuse the principle of “protecting sources”.

One of the most infamous cases of abusing this principle was the journalistic scandal of 1981, known as “Jimmy’s Story”. This story won a Pulitzer Prize for its author Janet Cooke, a former journalist on the Washington Post. Her story described the circumstances of an eight-year old heroin addict in the City. The public authorities searched for the child in order to give him the help he needed, but could find no trace of him. Janet Cooke refused to divulge her sources, citing journalistic privilege. In the end, after an intense investigation, the story was found to have been false, Cooke was fired and stripped of her Pulitzer.

Just to be clear: I am not saying that “Baby Thomas” has been invented; but I intend to do everything possible to track him and his alcoholic mother “Rose” down so that he can get the help he clearly needs; And I also intend to do whatever it takes to track down any farmers in the Province who may still be paying their workers in wine.

I will convene a meeting of all farmers in the Wellington area, as well as with workers and their representatives to ascertain whether the “dop system” still forms part of any remuneration system. I will request the assistance of labour inspectors in the area.

I have also asked social workers involved in the search for “Baby Thomas” in the Wellington area to submit their reports to me and to inform me whether and how he fell through the cracks of our system.

And I will request the SAPS to launch an urgent investigation into the matter of the alleged continuation of the “dop system” in the province, using the leads contained in the Cape Times piece.

This experience with the Cape Times article is not the first time we’ve run into a brick wall when trying to track down alleged “dop system” offenders when such allegations are made in third party reports. Back in 2011 the NGO, Human Rights Watch, published a report in which similar allegations about incidences of the dop system on some Western Cape farms were made.

Human Rights Watch are not journalists. They are purportedly champions of the weak, oppressed and abused. So we thought they would have no qualms about sharing their information with us about alleged serious crimes perpetrated against unborn and small children, so that we could lay charges with the police. Despite requests, no details were forthcoming.

It got to the point that I became suspicious about the veracity of these claims.

That does not mean that women aren’t drinking while pregnant. Thousands are. But this is a different (though no less tragic) matter. It is not possible in an open society to prevent adults voluntarily spending their wages on alcohol.

Patterns of alcoholism and binge drinking don’t necessarily change when wine is no longer handed out as payment. It is incredibly hard to alter this behaviour, or to prevent its consequences being handed down from generation to generation.

But this makes it all the more important for us to be meticulous with the facts. Some organisations are. One of them is the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) is the leading NGO when it comes to research and information on FASD. For them, dealing with the effects of FAS in communities is hard enough. But when their own research gets embellished and sensationalized, often beyond recognition, by those who have other agendas, it makes the struggle against FAS so much harder.

Which brings me back to the Cape Times piece. Half the piece is plagiarised from a three year-old article, and the other half contains a vague personal story of a baby and his mother as well as an anonymous quote about the continued existence of the dop system on certain farms.

Of course, I take these allegations very seriously, and that is why I will follow up this matter with great determination.

Battling the destructive effects of alcoholism and FAS is a tough task at the best of times. It is crucial that everyone who is in a position to help, does so without letting other agendas get in the way.

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.