Michael Fridjhon: SA wine’s ongoing lack of transformation

By , 27 September 2017



I was privileged to attend a pre-release showing of a documentary entitled “The Colour of Wine” which dealt with the first very tentative steps towards transformation within the wine industry in the decade following the 1994 election. Directed by Akin Omotoso, an award winning film-maker whose technique here is to juxtapose interviews with many of the key role players (including, most particularly, some of the first people of colour to enter the industry’s training institutions), it reveals much about an era we’ve chosen to forget.

It was a time in which I was directly involved in the processes which led to the restructuring of the industry on a macro scale, so I knew, and worked with, most of the cast of characters whose stories are enshrined in the documentary. That said, it was humbling to hear from them the details of their lives, the difficulties they confronted, the naked racism of some of the institutions they attended, the inhospitable environment that awaited them in the Cape winelands. It is not possible to see this film and not feel ashamed: no wonder we’ve swept that era out of our consciousness preferring to think that we’ve put all that behind us – because people of colour are no longer told to step out of the year-end class photos at Elsenburg. We comfort ourselves with the few initiatives – such as the Guild’s Protege Programme – which offer entry points that didn’t exist two decades ago.

WorkerBut how much has really changed, at the elementary level of providing senior technical employment in the production side of the industry? I’m not even talking about the much more fraught question of ownership, or the vastly easier-to-implement area of elementary technical training. Many of the various bursary programmes targeting black winemakers were established in the mid-1990s, but by the millennium I was already bumping into graduates who complained that they couldn’t find suitable employment. One I spoke to had accepted a position at WOSA because she had given up hope of obtaining a winemaking position. I’m not sure how many people of colour have passed through the courses at Elsenburg and the University of Stellenbosch, but it seems only a fraction of that number has a position of any seniority – or visibility – in the production sector.

We like to pride ourselves on the recent achievements of the industry. We bathe in the glory of the ever-increasing scores (as much an indication of the devaluation of the currency as a measure of the new heights scaled by producers who are the focus of the critics for whom the Cape has become a stomping ground); we recycle their sound bytes (“most exciting wine producing country in the world”) thinking that this means we’ve put our sinful past behind us. We use the increase in the number of boutique wineries as a metric of progress, as if the co-op era belongs to our apartheid past, and take comfort from the fact that half the cellars in the country now produce less than 7000 cases annually. We like the craft feel that comes with the old vines being saved in the Swartland and the Piketberg: it implies a more thoughtful and sustainable philosophy.

Worst of all we think our wine industry stands transformed because a few dozen largely white kids from mainly well-to-do homes buy fruit from growers who until a few years ago lived a precarious existence as members of the old co-ops. We seem to think that as long as enough of these adventurous newcomers, producing between them comfortably less than 0.5% of our national crop, are garnering scores in the 90s for a couple of barrels each of “statement” wines, we are not the same wine industry that was a “whites only” (and pretty much “men only”) home to winemakers 25 years ago. We find it convenient to think there’s no connection between who we are now, and the wine industry that not so long ago paid its workers in “dops” of wine. We choose not to ask why the same communities which a quarter of a century ago earned us our shameful reputation for the highest foetal alcohol syndrome in the world are still hard at it if this is, indeed, another industry in another country.

One glimpse at who is in charge of the country’s production facilities – now, in 2017 – tells a story of a lack of transformation which is not a matter of coincidence, but a monument to a concerted effort which starts at the top and permeates down – from the (generally) white male heads of our quasi-statutory institutions all the way to the employers who appoint the cellarmasters and viticulturists. A few token assistant winemakers, a face of colour for the marketing or sales team, and precious little else. The wall of white faces which greeted the heroes of “The Colour of Wine” when they set out on their career paths in the 1990s is largely unchanged, and the rank stupidity which has produced this situation will reap its own harvest.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including: Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.


18 comment(s)

  • Nick27 September 2017

    I am a wine retailer in the USA with a large South African section. I have read this story and been following the labor disputes stories and am concerned. Do you (and the other readers) think that is a good thing to keep buying and promoting SA wines at my store in an effort to widen opportunities? Or should I be cutting back on my purchases to express my solidarity with the ongoing racial injustice in the sector. I am wildly ambivalent here about what I should do.

    • Francois-Jacques Malan28 September 2017

      Nick, it true that most winemakers in SA are white men. This does not mean there aren’t plenty of black South Africans employed in the industry in positions from sales to finance to marketing and logistics. The most respected sommeliers in SA are mostly black Zimbabweans. The industry has been fast-tracking a few black wineMAKING graduates through internships etc, they are mainly in their 20’s & 30’s and in assistant positions.
      Don’t confuse lack of transformation with racial injustice.
      Also look at trends, not long ago there weren’t a lot of female winemakers (they are still in minority but they’ve grown a lot in number). It will take time before we have a LOT of black winemakers, but we’ll get there, it is inevitable.
      In the meantime buy Howard Booysen/Pegasus, StelleKaya, Thandi and/or Seven Sisters, there’s more, but I cannot think of them all now.

  • Jamie Goode28 September 2017

    This is a sobering and important perspective, from one of SA’s best placed and most respected commentators

    • Emile Joubert28 September 2017

      Hi Jamie
      As an informed and respected commentator yourself – and a frequent visitor to South Africa – surely you must have some thoughts on your experiences. Do they reflect those of the article in question?

  • Mynard28 September 2017

    Oh? I certainly hope that the “wall of white faces” will remember this insult and clear reference to their “rank stupidity” when the author’s invitations arrive for the wine shows he has been playing host to! It’ll be interesting to see if only the “transformed” producers are invited to participare henceforth. Or will the colour of their money absolve them again, Sir? Maybe (and this is merely a thought) the author should investigate SPUR when he takes such issue with the race who has supported his trade shows to date…

  • Neil T28 September 2017

    While I can see there are a few who may feel insulted by this article, it is a thoughtful and considered piece that highlights an industry that still has a long way to go despite having come so far.

    • Mynard28 September 2017

      Well, Neil, I for one will not add tomthe agony of white faces at Winex again, and I will share my sentiments with the rest of the ghastly untransformed minorities.

  • Rico Basson28 September 2017

    Dear Michael,
    I respect your personal reflection on the “ongoing lack of transformation in the wine industry” in this article and also take note of your views in the Nederburg Auction address on the same topic. Whilst I normally opt not to comment on public platforms such as this one, I also cannot remain silent when a writer make broad brush statements without factual support re the numerous projects that are indeed changing the landscape.
    Just in the past 2 weeks a black South African Winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela was nominated by Fortune as one of the top 10 global women in food and drink for 2017 http://amp.timeinc.net/fortune/2017/09/14/innovative-women-food-drink-2017, Phillip Jonker from Weltevrede Wine Estate in Bonnievale (150 km from Cape Town) donated 12 hectares of vineyard land and with collaboration from industry and government build a school for more than a 1000 farmworker kids http://www.wineland.co.za/changing-a-community/ and VinPro completed accredited training for more than 800 farmworkers.

    Through the Wine Industry Strategic Exercise – an initiative that was launched in 2015 – the wine industry is collaboratively committed to sustainability plans to benefit all stakeholders. This includes investment in social development programmes and enterpise development in excess of R100 million. This money has been spent on skills training and development, child education and development, after-care facilities for children to help working moms, rehabilitation programmes and enterprise development. We’re proud of the 52 black empowered businesses – representing more than 2 500 hectares – and 37 black-owned wine brands that our industry is supporting.

    There have been significant shifts, particularly over the past five years. One of the most notable has been the introduction of several multi-stakeholder platforms, with representation from the wine industry, labour and, in some cases, government. These include the Laborie Discussion Forum, Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) and the Wine Industry Value Chain Round Table. These platforms can be utilised by all workers to address issues in a safe and fair manner.

    The industry is committed to the journey, but the issues we face can’t be solved alone. We need collaboration with government , trade unions, civil society, our local and international partners and wine consumers to accelerate.
    I would really like to extend an invitation to you to when convenient allocate time to discuss the various initiatives, targets set, progress made and next steps with myself and fellow industry leaders. We need collaborative effort on this journey and a critical but balanced view point.
    No one said the journey would be easy…..and we have a long way to go
    Rico Basson
    MD VinPro – representing 3300 wine producers and 500 wineries

    • no-grape28 September 2017

      Why does the wine industry still have to pay levies etc to employ people like rico basson – who hasnt ever done a thin g for our wine industry – the money could rather be used to transform the industry – get rid of all the dead wood

      • Marthelize28 September 2017

        @no-grape Big talk from behind a small alias. Maybe provide your name and what you’ve done for the industry. Else, get in the sea

  • Morara28 September 2017

    I must say ,Truth Hurts. Nick , don’t cut back but let the issues and views come out while we continue to do business. At the same time, it says , we need to deal with the sector issues which we cannot solve in a day or month but be realistic. This is the history of SA, and our strength is in dialogue and that’s whats makes us unique as a country. Am sure Michael in his views he did not intend to offend but express what he experienced and see on the ground. The reality is,these issues can be solved and some good work is been done . Nick we need people like you to share the message, and change the narrative. If you drop SA product, you kill even those who have all their lives on the sector. We need you and you have to engage your suppliers, WHAT ARE THEY DOING TO CHANGE THE NARRATIVE. PLEASE GET IN TOUCH WITH MICHAEL, WE NEED CHANGE Ambassadors for SA.

  • Johline Barnardt29 September 2017

    Good Day Nick. There are many larger producers in South Africa that give back to the previously disadvantaged in South Africa and have great stories on upliftment of the teams. The recent Blend video that WOSA released is a prime example of good initiatives being driven by producers in the industry. I am due to visit the USA next week and will be spending time on the East and West coast and can come and see you to share some of these stories of brands that support social upliftment. Where is your store? I shall reach out telephonically to see if we can schedule a meeting. Thank you Nick!

  • Michael Fridjhon29 September 2017

    A bit of a hornet;’s nest out there:

    Nick – firstly a boycott would hurt the people in the most marginal positions, and would solve nothing, given the efforts being made by most producers (the great majority of whom voluntarily submit themselves to ethical standards audits). Cheap wine everywhere is produced with compromises – and are most likely to be contaminated with human misery. If you want to avoid any risk of selling this kind of wine, buy decent product from respectable producers.

    Rico – you assumed my comments in the piece were related to my address at Nederburg. I’m not questioning the achievements of VinPro or the efforts made by many producers to address the social and economic disparities arising from South Africa’s recent past. This article however was about the absence of people of color in senior technical positions in the wine industry. That was it – nothing else. It wasn’t about land or brand ownership, and while – as you say – you don’t comment generally on platforms like this, since you’ve now done so please try and explain why 23 years into the so-called new South Africa we still don’t have more than a handful of black winemakers, and few – if any – in a position of any seniority. You come from the banking sector, where middle and upper management is finally beginning to reflect the South African demographic – and not because of any tokenism. The wine industry appears to be decades behind the rest of the country. So don’t imagine that you can gloss over this uncomfortable truth with stories about 37 black-owned wine brands and other details of the “journey” when you’re not addressing this crucial element in the “destination.”

  • Ernst30 September 2017

    A disappointing piece on a sobering topic, which will most likely cause more frustration than good. And I’m sure that wasn’t its intention.

    I too am frustrated by slow progess with many things South African, but I try not to go about belittling the people around me because of it. The people who allow me to do what I do, be who I want to be. I remind myself to look at the failings of B-BBEE, which was aimed outright at solving this article’s inconvenient truth without taking into account the systemic view. I remind myself that transformation both in our industry and every other is a systemic shift to a full integration of all South Africans. Indeed, it needs to happen in the shortest amount of time possible, but it needs to happen in the right way in order to deliver results that last. Sustainable results. Results produced by systemic initiatives (educational and industry) that were changed from the bottom up. Initiatives that were touched on in the comments of this article, but were misunderstood.

    On the bright side we’re lucky that this zero-sum approach to our industry is something we’re seeing less of. The people I surround myself with are finding solutions and are trying to do the right thing. It would probably make for a good few stories, but I wouldn’t dare misjudge my biase for an entire industry.

  • Higgo5 October 2017

    Perhaps the obsession with forcing more winemakers and viticulturists of colour should be superseded by celebrating and promoting the areas that do show good demographics? We all see the necessity for transformation, and I do believe that it will come on production side, but born from desire.
    In the meantime there is great opportunity in uplifting and promoting the growing and dynamic young profession of sommeliers in SA where a very good representative demographic is shown naturally. Here is very little support from the industry (bar great support from individual producers) and training initiatives are self funded.
    Higgo Jacobs – Chair, SA Sommeliers Association

Leave a Reply to Higgo Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *