I should start with a disclaimer here, I am a white South Africa. Born in Cape Town, I’ve spent most of my life in the country. Home is where the heart is, and Cape Town is my home. I grew up through Apartheid, shielded by the colour of my skin and less so by my mother tongue (English). This is not a political rant, nor a history lesson so for more context you should look into the sordid history of my country. It is rich, diverse, and will certainly raise an eyebrow or two. But I move away from the point..
South Africa has little to no social safety net. Millions survive day to day, earning what they can to feed their families and fight the next day to do the same. However, ten years of far reaching and systemic corruption, under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, left the country on its knees just before the whole world was turned upside down. Few foresaw the COVID 19 pandemic, and fewer still made contingency plans. When you’re living on the breadline, future planning is luxury you can scarcely afford.
This past year has certainly been a wild ride! Most have lost touch with many, and some have forever lost those that mean so much. Mostly, it has been a year of uncertainty, frustration and fear. We have heard about, become familiar with and learned to despise Zoom. I personally learnt that, despite my initial thoughts, digital cannot replace personal contact. And I long for the days of hugging friends and not fearing strangers.
In June last year, my wife, son and I headed to Sweden for our annual summer vacation/family visit. This year on a repatriation flight amidst a severe lockdown that limited who was allowed in or out of the country. Fortunately, I hold an Irish passport, so I was allowed on the flight. Initially, we believed that this would be a potentially longer trip than usual, but that we were still heading ‘home’. When September rolled around, we started to believe otherwise.
What’s this all about?
On March the 27th 2020, South Africa went into a national lockdown. No one was allowed to leave their homes unless in the pursuit of essential goods (groceries) or services (health care). You could not go for a walk, and if you lived in an apartment with a dog, that was a problem you personally had to solve. People started reporting others taking their dogs for a walk. On top of this, South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that outright banned the sale of alcohol as a pandemic response. The ban was severe and extensive. For the first 5 weeks alcohol producers were not allowed to export their goods.
Keep in mind that this is shortly after harvest season, when old tanks are cleared, and warehouses are stacked to the rafters with goods ready to ship. Also, this is summertime, when the days are long and tourism and alcohol sales are at their peak. It hit everyone hard! Consumers were frustrated, but producers and tourism focused businesses, like restaurants were devastated. The initial ban last around 3 months, until it was lifted on the 1st of June 2020. The second ban started up again on the 12th of July and lasted until the 17th of August. The country has now imposed a third ban, as of the 28th of December and it is in place until at least the 15th of February.
A short caveat for context here. It is estimated that 14.7 million people are employed and the current official unemployment rate in South Africa is around 43%. For the largest portion of the population, employment is hard to come by, and in the current market almost impossible. Most in South Africa have not finished high school and have few options. I on the other hand have two degrees and many more options. Despite this, when the lockdown kicked off my consulting work was reduced to 40%. The economic outlook for the country is not very bright, and is expected to get worse before it gets better again.
I encourage you to imagine the plight of the South African wine producers. You and your family run a apple farm and this is your sole income. You have a family of 6 and employ 14 people to help in the orchards, pick and pack the apples. In your harvest season you make enough sales in 2 months to cover the expenses for rest of the year. You don’t make huge sums of money, but you love what you do and look after those you work with. You are after all a community, an extended family.
Then, after 10 months of waiting, preparation and gearing up to the big season, you are told that apples are illegal, transporting apples is illegal. You may not transport your apples to a cold store to be able to sell them later. And no one will be helping you with your financial situation. Your bank loan will still be due (at 13.5%), your family will still be hungry, your team will still need to be paid and your government will consider potentially helping you in 6-14 weeks, assuming you have filled out the correct paperwork and submitted it in triplicate to a basement office no one has been able to find in over a decade of searching. So what do you do?
Fortunately, South Africa has a fail-safe social net built into each of its members. Ubuntu, from Zulu, meaning I am because you are. We look after our own. Except for government, that’s only there for taxes and legislation and banks. My father started his company twice, once well and then shaky, the other time slow and steady. It grew over the 45 years he built it, and it was entirely dependent on the people that grew with it. 50 years on he is retired, the company has shut its doors, but he found employment for each of those who worked for him and taken on the unemployable in the absence of the company. But the hands that hold the net are growing weak after months of holding on, and the net is starting to slip and break.
So where am I going with this?
In August 2020, we had been in Sweden for two months. We knew that South African wine producers were struggling to survive after having their trade made ‘illegal’. So, we did our part to support. We looked around for South African wine at every turn. But there was little option and a poor representation of the variety of choice the Cape has to offer. So, we took it a little further and started a business importing South African wine to Sweden. We are small but growing. Those that give us a chance are incredibly happy with the wine and we do our best to make sure that everyone who does has the same pleasant experience that we have had with different vineyards in the past.
But this is a longwinded way to introduce a business. And honestly, not the point.
South Africa has a rich history of wine making. Beautiful landscapes and incredible terroir. When it comes to Chenin Blanc, Loire may be where it started, but consider this Swedish meatballs originally came from Turkey. In the heart of the tourist fuelled Western Cape, there is community driven by passion. The winemakers of the Cape. This community looks after itself and each other. From farm hands to grape pickers, winemakers, bottling staff and farm managers. They support their families, the local trade, restaurants and the tourism industry. If you have been to Cape Town you know that the trip isn’t complete without a visit to the winelands. And here is where I get to my point. This community is in trouble.
They are amid the second summer season, all ready to sell their apples, battered and bruised from a year of not being able to do their jobs, tired hungry and afraid and now fighting a third complete ban. Current estimates are that around a third of the wine produced in South Africa in 2020 has gone unsold. A staggering R7.5 billion (4.14 billion SEK) loss in revenue.
For those that aren’t familiar Cape Town has a bustling culinary scene, with amazing restaurants. You could spend months there, dining out every night without getting to all of them. Three of Cape Town’s finest restaurants, La Moutette, Upper Bloem and La Tete announced their closure last week and this is the canary in the coal mine. Hard times are yet to come in South Africa and the wine industry and tourism will be hit the hardest. Vineyards will be uprooted to plant ‘more viable crops’ hundreds of thousands will lose their livelihoods and an industry that once was the lifeblood of one of the most beautiful corners of the earth will wither away. I do not write this to be dramatic, but rather to emphasise the severity of the problem and raise as much awareness as I can.
How can you help?
I have a horse in this race. My current employment revolves around the exporting of South African wines, so I should not be trusted in isolation. But do your homework, you will not have to look very far to hear the calls from my fellow South Africans in need. And what do they need? You to buy their wine! Cape Wine Experience is not the only importer of South African Wine to Sweden. Although we do work with smaller producers that are more vulnerable to the state of affairs. I urge and implore you, drink South African. Find one you like and support the shit out of it! Tell your friends! South Africa needs outside help to get through this, and even with help it will still suffer severe consequences. Without help, it is doomed to be devastated.
I’ll leave you with one last thought, from Tim Atkin, Master of Wine UK
“South Africa is making the greatest wines in its history. We may even look back on
this time, ten years from now, when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, and kick ourselves for not realising how lucky we were. Some of the producers in this report will have stopped making wine; some of the vineyards that supply them with grapes will have succumbed to the bulldozer or neglect. So let’s celebrate, at a time of undeniable crisis, what makes South African wine great: its old vine Chenins, its Bordeaux blends, its Syrahs, its Chardonnays, Semillons, Cinsaults and even its Pinotages.”