A LOOK AT SOUTH AFRICA’S WINE INDUSTRY
Words :Katherine Barry
The clink of glasses and the soft murmur of conversation fill the air with the sounds of a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Searching for looming mountains, lush vineyards, and quiet roads, families and groups of friends flock to the wine lands in the Western Cape for vacations, day trips and evening meals to sample wine and pass time under the South African sun.
Behind the idyllic fields that birthed the South African wine industry, lie the lingering oppression of apartheid and the pain of extreme poverty. South Africa, which wasn’t known for being a world exporter of wine until post 1994, when apartheid induced international boycott ended, had eighth largest wine producer as of 2005, according to a report published by the South African Wine Industry Council in 2007.
South Africa entered the wine industry long before 1994, however Jan van Riebeeck planted the first vines in South Africa in 1655 and the first wines produced from those grapes appeared four years later. After initially planting vines in what is now Wynberg, the wine industry began to flourish in Constantia.
It was soon after the French Huguenots settled in the Cape area during the late seventeenth century; the wine trade began to flourish. Exports from Constantia became well known in Europe, creating the market for South African wine. However, Phylloxera, a disease that kills grape vines, was discovered in 1886 and caused much of the vineyards to suffer heavy losses.
The twentieth century was one of the most important centuries for South African wine. In 1925, Stellenbosch University Professor Perold was able to blend Pinot Noir with Hermitage grapes to create the Pinotage. The Pinotage wasn’t marketed until the late 1950s, but has since become South Africa’s most famous and successful cross-pollination.
As of 2008, the wine industry grossed 2.2% of the country’s GDP, which was about R26.2 billion. The latest numbers, coming from the wine industry, show an increase in production, up R4 billion from five years earlier. The industry also provides 275,600 job opportunities as well, according to South Africa information (www.southafrica.info). Wine tourism draws a steady stream of people to the winelands in the Western Cape. Stellenbosch and Paarl are among the most popular destinations.
The problems plaguing the heavily white wine industry are most certainly correlated to other social problems in post-apartheid South Africa, and while they do not necessarily have their origins within the industry itself, it is apparent that the industry is feeling problematic reverberations throughout its entire structure.
The antiquated ‘dop’ (meaning ‘drop of alcohol’ in Afrikaans) system, under which black and coloured workers were paid in alcohol, usually wine, rather than cash or other goods, led to high rates of alcoholism among the workers, whose consumption of the wine left them tethered to the farm that they worked on in order to maintain a continuous flow of alcohol from the farm owners, who were (and still are) overwhelmingly white. Even though the ‘dop’ system has been abolished, and reforms are in place to ensure that the workers are compensated legitimately, alcoholism remains one of the main social problems emanating from the Western Cape wine industry.
Shebeens, or other illegal liquor establishments, are often hotbeds of alcohol-related activity. The farm workers, who often lack other means of entertainment and suffer from geographically induced social isolation and lack the money as well as other resources needed to overcome these obstacles, have easy access to the Shebeens.
Since these Shebeens often act as community centres, the presence of children is common. Some mothers even put wine into their babies’ bottles in order to keep them quiet, according to Professor Dennis Viljoen as quoted in an article written for VOAnews.com (Voice of America) by Darren Taylor.
Another of the far-reaching social problems stemming from the South African vineyards is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS and other alcohol-related developmental problems occur when the mother ingests large quantities of alcohol during pregnancy and is the most preventable cause of mental retardation. Many mothers continue to drink throughout their pregnancies, due to a lack of education about the ill-effects of drinking during pregnancy as well as disregard for that information.
Estimates of FAS in South Africa, average around 45 cases per 1000 (suggests Jake McKinstry in the American Journal of Public Health, 2005). Compared to rates of one case per 750 infants born in the United States, (according towww.kidshealth.org) the rate of the South African FAS is staggering. The country has one of the highest FAS rates in the world. Children who suffer from FAS often suffer from symptoms such as: a low birth weight, developmental delay, learning disabilities, behavioural problems and poor social skills.
All of these symptoms could be easily avoided if mothers would abstain from alcohol while pregnant, making FAS the most preventable cause of developmental problems. In South Africa, awareness of FAS is limited, but attempts to spread information have begun. International Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Day in on 9 September. Despite the fact that attempts are being made to quell the rise of FAS in South Africa, it cannot be achieved without support from the systems that have contributed to the spread of the problem.
Alcoholism is not the only problem plaguing the South African wine industry. The lack of diversity may seem inconsequential, but in order to maintain growth rates that mirror those of the population of the country, it is imperative that more black wine farms be created. A black economic empowerment (BEE) charter drafted in 2007 attempted to address the economic disparity and to create a more diverse industry has failed to move through governmental channels. However, there has been promising, albeit slow, growth within the industry. According to the Wine Industry Development Association (WIDA) 38% of ‘wine operations’ have programmes in place for black empowerment. Another positive indicator of progress is Thandi, now an independent company that was started under Paul Cluver Vineyards. Thandi began to show profit and has also been able to pay dividends to its shareholders. However, it appears that Thandi might be an outlier rather than part of a growing trend. BEE research shows that only 2.26% of vineyards are operated under black ownership. Growth and change may be coming to the South African wine industry, but it’s coming slowly.
Putting it all together
The South African wine industry mirrors the rest of the country quite clearly in racial breakdowns and social problems, but it also mirrors the positive impact that time seems to be having on those same issues. Racial integration has been slow coming to South Africa, particularly the Western Cape, but it seems as though the tides are slowly changing as the workforce becomes a more integrated, educated place. The determination of industries to diversify has only added to the sense of hope being fostered among communities of all race, socio-economic, age and demographics.