Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Race and wine in South Africa

"The future's so bright ..." in Hemel-en-Aarde
In September, Cape Town's convention center was full of people pouring wine, and visiting importers and journalists tasting it. Most of South Africa's winemakers and winery owners attended the important Cape Wine event, held only once every three years.

Almost the only black people I saw were servers. South Africa is only 8% white, but in important jobs in the wine industry, it's more like 99% white.

Race is the unspoken issue hovering over the South African wine industry. People there talk about it, but nobody wants to write about it. And when they do, they tiptoe.

Cape Town, as seen from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison

I brought home the excellent Platter's Wine Guide: 647 pages packed with useful information including profiles of every winery in the country, reviews of almost every current release, lists of specialist wine tour companies, you name it. There are four sentences about "transformation," the South African code word for affirmative action, and they are pure lipservice.

To be fair, there have been plenty of actual initiatives by the wine industry. South Africa has 31 black-owned wineries and 62 black-owned "wine farms" (what they call vineyards), according to Wines of South Africa. And it is the largest producer of Fair Trade wines in the world, mainly because other countries don't pay much attention to Fair Trade certification, because they don't have to.

Race: the elephant in the room? One of my best safari pictures
Nonetheless, in 2011 Human Rights Watch issued a report claiming that black workers on wine and other fruit farms in South Africa live "dismal, dangerous lives." That got a moment's attention, but wine writers aren't comfortable writing about race, and it hasn't really been addressed since.

Before I continue, because I'm not comfortable writing about this either, let me address a few points:

1) I'm white. I was born this way, and I'm not going to apologize for it.

2) I'm not South African and have only been to the country once. I did spend nearly a month and visited many places. But still.

3) The US wine industry has its own racial issues, as do the wine industries in France, Italy and other countries.

All these AND Internet trolls
4) Why don't people write about racial issues more often? Because you might write 2000 thoughtful words, but leave in a single phrase that somebody deems offensive on the topic of race and the next thing you know, you are a dentist who shot a lion, or even worse, a female game programmer. The risk is great, the reward is nonexistent.

Race is an issue in many countries' wine industries, but it looms largest in South Africa for several reasons. First, no other country has a wine industry run entirely by a small minority race. Second, while other countries have histories of systematically exploiting black workers, you have to go back generations, whereas apartheid in South Africa only ended in 1994.

In no other country is there a real threat that parts of the wine industry could be nationalized, and vineyard land taken from its owners. In South Africa, "redistribution" is the official policy of the ruling party, the ANC (African National Congress). This has not been carried out by seizure, but vignerons need only look across their northern border to Zimbabwe, where that has happened, sometimes violently, since 2000.

"I think it's always in the back of your mind," winery owner Gordon Newton Johnson told me. "That is the worst case scenario. But I don't think we'll get there. I think we've passed that point already. We've taken too many steps in the right direction."

I don't know if that's true, but it may not matter, because not many South Africans, black or white, want their country to become Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's economy since land reform has been a disaster, with unemployment of 95% and hyperinflation reaching 231,000,000% (not a typo) in 2008 and the country suspending its own currency. That example seems certain to stay the ANC's hand.

But things change, and if the ANC were ever to lose power, you just look at a country with 80% black people and unemployment over 30% among them, compared to about 8% among whites, and you don't think voters are going to be seduced by parties on the right.

During my visit, the country's third-largest party, Economic Freedom Fighters, called for a march in big cities to protest a variety of economic injustices, and temporarily shut down central business districts. Strikes are common in every industry, including a national farmworkers strike during grape harvest season last year.

"It diddn't affect us, but it was very politicized," Nadia Newton Johnson said. "In Robertson, the workers living on the farms, they felt threatened. People coming from outside were telling them not to go to work. Saying that if they did go to work, they'd be attacked."

Protests like these are covered as socioeconomic issues, but in the wine industry (and others) the division of roles is clear: the owners are white, the striking workers are black.

The South African wine industry likes to say that it is taking steps to address the racial imbalance; I got a 22-point fact sheet when I asked about it. And here's a link to the industry's social sustainability measures.

But I can only report what I saw. There were 15 black South African winemakers in 2010, according to a CNN story, but I didn't meet any at the country's international wine showcase, not for lack of looking for them.

Pemla Makanda speaks; Phelisa Moni (right) waits her turn
At Cape Wine, Wines of South Africa hosted a seminar on "the apprentice," showing off some black faces (and one Indian, "colored" in the local parlance). The idea is that the industry needs to mentor people from the beginning. And indeed, the panelists said their families looked at wine as a foreign culture.

"In Port Elizabeth, wine is a drunkee," said Pemla Makanda. "If you drink wine, you're a drunk person."

Phelisa Moni said that when she told her mother she wanted to work in the wine industry, "My mom said, 'How can you display the wine at home? It is alcohol. What if the church people come by?' "

But for me, this panel backfired. The four people the industry rounded up to show its commitment to transformation included a waitress, not sommelier, at a Cape Town restaurant (Makanda); a "wine advisor" at a big winery (Moni), whose job description sounds like tasting-room staff; and two assistant red winemakers at big wineries, one black and one Indian. That was the best they could do?

No wonder, though, when the panelists talked about the barriers to entry. Moni, 26 and a single mother, spent a full year in a training program without pay. She loved it; she got to spend six weeks on an exchange program in Burgundy. But most South Africans could not have followed her dream.

"I was one of nine people under one roof," Moni said. "It was difficult because we all needed to have income, and for one year I had negative income. But I believe that life is worth living."

It's easy to say that South African whites in the wine industry should do more for the black population; of course they should. But the issue is complicated.

Wine is an important export for the country. Most of South Africa's exports are materials: iron ore (14% of exports), chromium and platinum (9%), gold (7%), coal (6%) and diamonds (2%). South Africa does export motor vehicles and appliances within Africa, but in Europe and North America, the only value-added product for which South Africa is known is wine, which is 1.2% of the nation's GDP according to Wines of South Africa CEO Siobhan Thompson.

South Africa's wine industry is huge: the world's seventh-largest, it produces 4.2% of the world's wine. And it exports 57% of its production. It employs 289,000 people, a drop in the bucket of a country of 53 million, but it's something. Of those, 55% are listed as "unskilled." There may not be many black winemakers, but a lot of black people are making a living from wine.

Despite this, Thompson complains that Wines of South Africa gets no support from the government.

South Africa's oldest wine region. Wine country in South Africa is as beautiful as anywhere in the world
This isn't the case for European wineries, which get significant support from the European Union. French farmers blockade cities at the merest hint that their support might be reduced. A lot of French people can stay in the wine business because of the EU, whereas no South African winery can say that.

White South African vineyard and winery owners are certainly far better off than their employees. But we're talking about the wine industry, where the adage is true that the way to make a small fortune is to start with a big one. This isn't a case of a bunch of millionaires refusing to help the disadvantaged: it's a group of farmers trying to make ends meet in a competitive world market, and transformation is only one of their concerns.

Moreover, the best wines I had in South Africa were like the best anywhere: made by passionate vintners who run their own small companies. In South Africa, they tended to be younger than elsewhere because the industry was monopoly-controlled until the end of apartheid, so there's an exciting new generation of people challenging preconceptions of ripeness, grape variety, oak aging, etc. It's one thing to ask the giant company Distell, which takes up 21% of the liquor market, to hire and train black assistant winemakers; in fact, Distell does. It's quite different to expect that of a 32-year-old in the Swartland who just founded her own business, doesn't actually own any vineyards, and has to get attention overseas for her relatively expensive wine from an unexpected country.

That vintner might get more support in Europe, but it's easy to see why, in a country with frequent power outages and townships where poverty is still abject, the ANC isn't enthusiastic about writing a check to a convention center full of white people.

But what if the money helped sell more wine and bring more wine tourists? What if it was used to create more jobs?

Grinding flour in a Basotho village
A barrier to black job creation in wine, beyond cultural differences and finances, is employee housing. It's a huge issue that the industry is afraid to address, and not without reason.

If you look at a map of South Africa, the wine industry is concentrated within a couple hundred kilometers of Cape Town. And it's rural.

"The Western Cape and the winegrowing areas have been populated predominantly by people of color. Not black, brown," Ataraxia winery owner Kevin Grant told me. "The really indigenous people, Xhosa and Zulu, they have been pastoral. Cultivating and working in wine has not been traditional. We ourselves have 30% of our farm employees are black. I don't think there's an issue of ability. It's a question of availability."

The black population with the highest unemployment is further north and east, and it's urban. It's easy to say a vineyard owner should hire a dozen more workers, especially because they aren't paying them very much. (A 2008 article in the Journal of Agrarian Change called it "Deracializing exploitation.")

But it's not that easy to get workers from townships to, say, rural, windswept Hemel-en-Aarde.

"On this farm we feed our team," La Vierge owner Peter Clarke told me. "We don't have accommodation. We try to make sure they have one good meal. We pay as well as we can. Do we have a scheme where they will be partners? Not yet."

Clarke, whose family owns a trading company, had a home next to Nelson Mandela in Durban. He struck me as sincere when he said, "(Mandela) made it very clear: it's time you give something back. It's time that you create businesses for people who haven't got them. So we did a project, where we used flour and bakery equipment to produce fast foods." That was to give back; the winery and vineyard in Hemel-en-Aarde was a more personal dream.

Clarke wouldn't say it, but others did: having employee housing reminds owners uncomfortably of farm takeovers by resident workers in Zimbabwe. This has actually happened on some South African farms, although not any vineyards I heard of: people living on the farm claim a piece of the land, successfully. If workers don't live there, they can't make that claim.

Another code phrase you hear a lot in South Africa, from white people, is "I have a connection to the land." You hear it on the radio, in interviews, you read it in the newspaper. It's spoken as a positive but it's actually defensive, answering an unasked and feared question. And it's true. White people may have seized the land from the natives in South Africa, just as they did in the U.S. and Australia and South America and other places. But that happened centuries ago. The wine industry in South Africa was started by whites in the 1600s. One can't expect centuries of racial domination to be reversed in 21 years.

A question I pondered a lot while driving around South Africa, particularly when passing massive townships of roughly built one-room shacks, was "How long?" South Africa is a first-world country for its white population in the Western Cape, but a third-world country for most of its black population. How long will it take for opportunities to equalize?

Let's compare it to the U.S. (This is going to get me in trouble.) It's easy to say that equality of opportunity still does not exist here, but it's not South Africa: there are plenty of black middle managers, black CEOs aren't news, and there's at least one successful black politician you might have heard of. We have slums, but not townships. We have come a long way.

Slavery in the U.S. officially ended with the Civil War in 1865. In 2003, the Supreme Court declared in Grutter v. Bollinger that affirmative action was still important in college admissions. That's 138 years and still we don't have equality.

South African blacks have one huge advantage, though. The U.S. might have a black President, but we've never had anywhere close to a black majority in Congress, which the ANC has held from South Africa's first free election. Parts of the U.S. government spent decades actively impeding racial equality, with Governor George Wallace famously standing in a doorway at the University of Alabama to try to prevent black students from enrolling in 1963, 98 years after the end of slavery.  America's first true national attempt at equality was Lyndon Johnson's Great Society plan, which began exactly 99 years after the end of the Civil War. So the ANC has a 100-year headstart on the U.S.

However, the ANC operates at a huge disadvantage in that, by the time the U.S. decided to take action, our economy was powerful. We were easily the world's richest nation and we had the resources to provide for every citizen's welfare. That may no longer be true in the U.S., but it has never been close to being true in South Africa, and it's hard to see how long it will take before it could be.

There is a black middle class in Johannesburg, and a black upper class as well. So there has been progress already.

Breakfast for lunch!
Here is my most uncomfortable observation: in a month in South Africa, I did not once see a group of black and white people hanging out together. I ate every meal in restaurants. Some restaurants in the Western Cape attract only white diners. But in other parts of the country, I ate at crowded highway-stop chains (I loved having breakfast for lunch at Steer's). Black and white people seemed perfectly comfortable dining in the same restaurant, but I never saw one mixed-race group of diners.

This continuing existence of parallel societies must be a hindrance toward equality of racial opportunity. I think back to the comments of the black apprentices who did manage to enter the wine industry, and remember that all of them talked about the resistance of their friends and family to their entrance to white society. But for now at least, white society is where the jobs and money are.

I know this social hurdle problem also exists in Europe and the U.S. But say what you want about our racial disharmony, a mixed-race table at Waffle House wouldn't raise eyebrows.

And here's my second-most uncomfortable observation. When I wasn't working as a journalist, but simply out being a tourist, I learned most white South Africans don't have a very high opinion of the working ability of black South Africans.

I could tell you the anecdotes, but 1) they're hearsay and 2) they're all essentially the same. Many white South Africans told of a black person, or several, they thought was unqualified for a job getting it because of affirmative action, and not doing a good job at it.

Now, let's say you have a moderate-sized winery. Winemaking is not like other jobs: you can't simply learn the parameters and follow them. In fact, I would argue that there really is no unskilled labor in the wine industry, because to do pruning and picking right, you have to know what you're doing.

I digress. You own a moderate-sized winery. You are white, and you spend all your social time in the presence of other white people. You believe in transformation and you think it's important for the country, and fair, to hire as many black people as possible. But you only have one winemaker and one assistant and your product, your future, your very name, are dependent on the quality. Who do you hire?

New day rising? Giant's Castle, KwaZulu-Natal
Journalists, and ordinary people, like to boil complex issues down to binary choices. Are you helping South Africa's black population by buying South African wine? How much of that $9.99 you spend on Chenin Blanc reaches a township?

I don't know, but you're certainly not helping by not buying the wine.

I believe there are a lot of sincere white people in the South African wine industry who want to help the country in its transformation. What exactly more they can do, I simply cannot say.

"I would like to do more than I say," Clarke said. "All my colleagues will tell you that. We're all aware that there's more to be done."

and how the wind creates a unique terroir, at Palate Press.

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  1. Thanks for this most thoughtful post.

  2. I last visited in 2010 but it doesn't sound like too much has changed in five years. I'm not sure why but when I was visiting the wineries everyone was very, very open with me about the situation essentially stating to somewhat hedge their bets, they had a black South African investor buy a small percentage of the winery as a very attractive price to be a silent yet black South African partner. They also questioned Jacob Zuma's physical intelligence which honestly based upon his statements about AIDS, I do as well.

    In terms of welfare for the workers, it's just a fact that workers are treated like shit everywhere in the wine world or at least paid as such. It's a good thing I was more interested in the experience as opposed to the paycheck in Spain as it doesn't pay well here either. A Spanish friend of mine has worked a couple of vintages there as a qualified enologist and says you get a bit hungry in terms of the paycheck but that it's like Spain or the rest of Southern Europe. California pays well but then again the wines sell for more.

    And this is probably at the heart of the problem in that SA exports a huge amount of its production to the UK who basically refuse to pay more than 5 pounds for a bottle of SA wine. Those prices squeeze the winemaker who then are unable to pay their workers more. If you want to avoid the situation like we have in Eastern Congo with the mining of Coltan for mobile electronics then the burden falls upon the end consumer much more so than the winery owner.

    It would interesting to focus only what what's happening in Swartland as their wines are fetching higher prices and in theory their labor situation should invariably improve.


  3. Miquel: The Swartland is an interesting case. Many of the best wines from there are made from vineyards that aren't owned by the wineries. I'm also told that the vineyard owners aren't generally the ones reaping the benefits of higher prices fetched for the wines. But it seems to me to be harder to train someone to work in a winery than in a vineyard, and besides, these small wineries are really small operations.

  4. I am going to take my family to SA (Capetown then safari) in July 2016....could you suggest a few wineries to visit? Also, this is a very interesting and thoughtful post--nice job explaining the issues.

  5. Andrew: I really enjoyed visiting South Africa and think you'll love it. Many of the most exciting wines are from Swartland, but if you're bringing your family, you might have a better time in Stellenbosch, which reminds me of Sonoma, and Robertson, which is a little more like, hmmm, Paso Robles. Rather than recommend tasting rooms from my limited experience, I suggest Platter's Guide.

    Re safari: I really liked Addo Elephant Park, even more than Kruger.

  6. thanks! I will check out Platters Guide and Addo

  7. My 18 year old daughter is (thankfully) colour blind and she socialises with all sorts. FYI we also export cars to Asia and South America.