Greg Sherwood MW: Sledgehammer Politics South African-style

By , 22 July 2020



I make no apologies for trying to uphold a resolutely positive demeanour in the face of on-going trouble and strife in both the UK and South African economies. Thankfully, the UK government, however incompetent and increasing woke they have become, enforcing ever more incoherent and disparate policies with those of Scotland and Wales, they have not yet turned into a government that thrives on schadenfreude.

President @CyrilRamaphosa recently delivered a recorded message of support prior to the 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture under the theme, “Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era”.

But it seems in South Africa, the populace is firmly beset by politicians who are deriving a great amount of pleasure from the suffering and misery being inflicted on wide swathes of the economy, most notably in the wine industry in the Western Cape that also happens to be one of the region’s largest employers. For the first time, possibly ever, I am seeing influential, successful industry leaders starting to buckle and fall prey to the relentless waves of negativity and incompetence emanating from South Africa’s dogmatic national politicians. The final straw for many of our teetering wine farms? Let’s hope not.

Like a bad dose of déjà vu, a nationwide alcohol ban has descended across the nation once again and thrown thousands of livelihoods into peril. This blanket ban on the transportation, distribution and sale of all alcohol resembles, from the outside, a proverbial sledgehammer being used to crack a small nut. Interestingly, the popular narrative now emerging from the government encompasses the nations’ collective inability to handle and consume alcohol responsibly during lockdown, therefore directly impeding their broader anti-coronavirus strategies. Funny how this was never an issue pre-Coronavirus!? Across the UK, in complete contrast, it was interesting to note that once the closure of restaurants, bars and pubs was announced at the beginning of lockdown, wine shops were immediately classified as essential retail businesses and given a special dispensation to remain open alongside all the food retailers. Unlike the South African government, UK politicians realised that effectively banning the sale and distribution of alcohol would constitute a most serious and grave deprivation of national civil liberties and would almost certainly not have been tolerated by the broader population.

All across Europe and the United States of America, a much broader philosophical debate has started to rage as governments enact ever more draconian measures to fight the Coronavirus pandemic, many of which have been deemed by large sectors of the establishment as unacceptably authoritarian and unjust, and thus representing a clear encroachment on the civil liberties enshrined in law in most of these countries constitutions. If you are one of those that believe that all governments are merely benign entities happily existing to serve its people, well, then you probably aren’t going to be too worried by the current laws being enacted by many governments. If on the other hand, you are one of the growing numbers of sceptics who see the increasing disregard for political due process and the authoritarian decisions power hungry politicians are enacting, then you might be more worried about the parallel agendas many of these politicians harbour, specifically in a South African context. Parallel agendas you may ask?

Well, from where I stand, some of the alcohol and tobacco abolitionist murmurings surfacing from very senior government ministers reeks of blatant nanny state, backdoor national socialism where policies and laws are enacted unilaterally and in the name of ‘protecting the greater population’ as if it were some collective huddle of young adolescent kids who need a special kind of authoritarian paternalism to look after them… because they don’t know any better. If my memory serves me correctly, this was half the root evil that inspired and underpinned many of the policies in the early years of apartheid in the 1950s and 1960s. This kind of dogma is extremely dangerous and more often than not leads to negative outcomes for the majority of the population if left unchallenged.

As many governments and countries around the world now try and move out of hard lockdown in the hope of reviving their flagging economies, many politicians are now realising in an almost naive hindsight that perhaps shutting down their economies so totally was not the most inspired decision to follow. Only in the past weeks, Norway’s Prime Minister apologised on national TV for their draconian lockdown and admitted that following a more measured, cautious route of Coronavirus prevention in the model of Sweden, might actually have been a more appropriate and less economically damaging course of action to take. Already in the UK, we can see that as the economy slowly tries to returns to life, large swathes of the hotel, tourism, hospitality and restaurant sectors are flatlining on the hospital operating table. The hard shock treatment meant to protect the patient has instead had the opposite effect and actually killed them.

It may already be too late for South Africa to learn the lessons from other countries that preceded it in the pandemic as the damage to the economy may already be terminal. What is clear is that the hard lockdown policies South Africa is blindly reverting back to including the blanket alcohol ban, will cause untold long-term economic damage much of which will quite simply not be reversable. Now is the time for intelligent, considered, measured policies that keep the patient alive instead of killing him. Why not allow mail order wine sales, wine club and membership wine sales and deliveries? Why not allow home deliveries direct from wineries? Sledgehammer policies will neither stem the new spike in South African Coronavirus infections nor improve the capacity of a creaking healthcare system that has been historically mismanaged and faced chronic underinvestment for decades. It is never too late to turn course for the greater good of the economy and the whole country.

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.

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9 comment(s)

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    Stewart Prentice | 24 July 2020

    Common sense surely dictates permitting any previously permitted economic activity which does not likely lead to our hospitals being overwhelmed sooner rather later (which of course they will be). Let me buy online and consume at home. SARS would surely be grateful for the revenue and the etailers stand a tiny chance of staying in business.

    If the best our government can come up with is a blanked ban though, then pour yourself a strong drink and get ready because it is going to get a lot worse. Very quickly.

    Ross Sleet | 23 July 2020

    Greg, you are a highly regarded wine writer and an extremely well respected and likeable member of the UK wine trade whose comments and musings I and many others in South Africa enjoy. However your analogy and linking of the evils of Apartheid to the current government’s actions, cannot be left unchallenged. Apartheid was not in any manner a paternalistic system. It was a brutal, violent oppression by the minority population against the majority based on evil, racist dogma. The current government has most certainly not handled this crisis well in many respects, and yes the wine industry is suffering as are all parts of its value chain, but please don’t liken the current Governments’ actions to the Apartheid regimes of the past. It does not do us, the South African wine industry any favours at all.

    Melvyn Minnaar | 23 July 2020

    From the important Landbouweekblad online panel discussion yesterday about the liquor ban’s effect on the wine industry, the seriousness of the situation couldn’t have been clearer. Just the image of millions of litres of wine (from this year’s and upcoming harvest) with nowhere to go, is a doomsday scenario. But it was also obviously that throwing fire bombs will be, to say the least, counterproductive. It is an extraordinary challenge for wine people (and I most certainly exclude producers and sellers of alcohol) to come up with practical and rational proposals – to save the industry and culture, but also the lives people.

    Duncan | 22 July 2020

    This is nonsense. If the health system collapses, the economy will collapse. Targeted restrictions on alcohol, that disproportionately affect poor people, have already been attempted: regressive sales taxes, limited buying windows (irrelevant to those with money to stockpile), and bans on public drinking. Emergency rooms remained overwhelmed. That was “never an issue pre-Coronavirus” because the public health system wasn’t under the same kind of pressure.

    The alcohol ban may or may not be good policy, but it is not on the face of it absurd.

    The pandemic itself poses the greatest threat to the economy. Already, large firms are unable to process transactions because their staff are sick and off work.

    We are seeing mounting global evidence that acting too late to impose a lockdown, and reopening too early, are devastating to the economy.

    Sweden’s model was not successful from a public health perspective, nor did it adequately protect the economy. Additionally, Sweden benefited from a general European lockdown and its robust and effective public health infrastructure.

    The South African government has not communicated adequately, they have not been transparent in their decision making and the have clearly not used lockdown adequately. They deserve strong criticism. But that criticism needs to be nuanced and informed by evidence.

    I had intended to stockpile more wine and missed my opportunity. I’m extremely annoyed about it. But to say we are witnessing “backdoor national socialism where policies and laws are enacted unilaterally and in the name of ‘protecting the greater population’” is, frankly, not reasonable commentary.

      Jabulani Debedu | 23 July 2020

      Well put Duncan.

      I think we, supporters of the wine industry, need to keep a sense of perspective and resist the temptation of viewing ourselves above society.

      The dogged conspiratorial argument that the ANC government, for all its diabolical shortcomings, are using the pandemic to cynically collapse the wine industry is not useful.

      By insisting that the booze ban be lifted (without acknowledging the strain alcohol abuse puts on our fragile health system in the face of rising COVID cases and death), the industry is effectively farming its own future misery. For when the health system collapses the economy will certainly tank.

        Carl | 3 August 2020

        The liquor industry does have programs in place to address alcohol abuse – do people want to be educated? The fragile health system is the fault of the current Government who pillaged the funds and continue to do so in the midst of this crisis. And now the broader industry must pay for this.

        When the economy collapses, the heath system – public and private – will collapse. There is no alternative funding but from the pockets of the people of South Africa.

    Hennie C | 22 July 2020

    We’ve certainly had some absolute stupidity from our government. But as much as it pains me to say, the alcohol ban’s intention isn’t really irrational if you can keep the economic angle out of it. The loss of income to many are the only reason there’s so much criticism about the booze ban.

    South Africans have a dodgy relationship with booze. The low % that drinks wine may be excluded from this generalisation, but let’s face it – when the brandy and coke start working its magic and the knives come out – then there is a case to be made for the ban if the intention is to keep the emergency rooms empty.

    Leo | 22 July 2020

    Interesting read. When one considers the actions, or more specifically misactions, of the ANC government not to be the result of incompetence but rather that of intention then the irrational nature of their lockdown rules makes sense. It appears appealing with earnestness and reason for the government to consider those most damaged by its questionable laws achieves nothing and that the example we have been given by the taxi industry might be the only way forward. When prohibition makes little sense then becoming an outlaw seems less reprehensible. This situation is made even worse by a government that is treating its citizens like children, and naughty children at that.

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