Jan Boland Coetzee is recognised for his leadership in the technological, social and management development of the South African wine industry. He leads by his example. It reflects his love for people, profound knowledge, role as mentor and adviser for many, including producers. He is recognized for his ability to solve complex situations in a discrete manner with moral authority and an understanding of the value of social capital.”
Thus reads an extract from the commendation read out when Stellenbosch winemaker and former rugby player, Jan Boland Coetzee, received an honorary doctorate in agriculture (DScAgric) from Stellenbosch University (SU) on Tuesday April 2.
According to Professor Danie Brink, Dean of the SU Faculty of AgriSciences, the honorary degree is more than just a tribute to Mr Coetzee himself.
It also honours all the leaders and pioneers who have helped build the South African wine industry. It is a way of thanking them for their role in the development of Stellenbosch University and the Faculty of AgriSciences over the past 100 years.
In his day, the 74-year old was a busy loose forward who played rugby for Maties and Western Province for many years. He also scrummed in six Springbok test matches in the mid-1970s. Today, sports journalists still regularly phone Mr Coetzee for comments before or after a tough rugby match.
His ability to be able to say where a wine is from is legendary. In the 1970s he was one of the pioneers to start using smaller wooden barrels. In 1982 he was one of the founding members of the Cape Winemakers Guild. His attempts to bypass the quarantine regulations of the day and smuggle chardonnay shoots into the country eventually led to the Klopper Commission of 1986, and many changes to the importing of plant material. More recently, he was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Institute for Grape and Wine Science, a joint venture between Stellenbosch University and industry.
Many a wine writer has described him as a “South African asset” and he has been honoured as a wine legend.
But Mr Coetzee is much more than just a vineyard or a rugby field. Among other things, he was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Rural Foundation, which ensured various social development projects on farms and in rural areas.
For him it started with wanting to make people’s worlds bigger, in the late 1960s. One day Mr Coetzee took Kanonkop’s gardner, Frikkie van Kerwel, along when he went to collect mail at Muldersvlei, about five kilometers distant from the farm.
“Wow,” said Mr Van Kerwel. “I can’t believe how big Muldersvlei’s station has become.”
His comment stayed with Mr Coetzee. At the time, Muldersvlei was not much more than station and a building or two.
“Oupa Frikkie was one of the most incredible guys,” Mr Coetzee recalls. “It made me realise that if the living space of such a good person can be so small, you have to somehow help to make it bigger.”
Mr Coetzee decided to make a plan: “When you’re young, you’re pretty ambitious. Initially, I just took my work team along to matches, and then later on I sent them to Newlands by train.”
He established a rugby team at Kanonkop that started playing against those of neighbouring farms.
“Then the women said that they’d like to play netball,” he said and explains how a local sports league came into being. “The newspapers spread the story, and people started hearing about it across the country. It was probably something different during those days. It was 1969, 1970, after all.”
Mr Coetzee started talking to Okkie Bosman, the then head of SU’s community service USKOR (today Maties Community Services). He organised sponsorships through business connections, and the idea behind the rugby games started to grow. From this, the Rural Foundation was established. It provided various community-based initiatives based around farm schools, creches, and sports activities.
“It was a demanding but also very satisfying time and kept going for the best of about 26 years,” says Mr Coetzee. “Along with Okkie Bosman I travelled a lot around the country, talking to agricultural associations.”
The endeavours of the Rural Foundation were largely funded by farmers, an American philanthropic organization and the government itself. Jan is still sorry that it came to an end in the mid-1990s.
As an afterthought, he says: “If it kept going, we might not have had all these hiccups we have today.”