Tim James: SA wine – a troubled and troubling industry

By , 20 July 2020

Everyone connected with the South African wine industry, either professionally or as a “mere” wine drinker, will sympathise with all those in it negatively affected by the recently re-imposed ban on domestic liquor sales – which means nearly everybody concerned. Even if those mere wine drinkers without a useful stock of their favourite tipple, and no certainty at all about when sales will start again, are probably feeling most acutely sorry for themselves right now….

Hard times for the industry, indeed, though not unshared with other sectors of the South African – no, world – economy. And it is probable that a governmental ban, if it had to be imposed at all, could have been implemented in such a way, with such timing and scope, as to cause less anguish to producers, distributors and retailers. Though, of course, anything other than the ban, if total, taking immediate effect would have led to amazingly problematical scenes as panicking customers rushed the outlets.

However despairingly, I initially found it hard not to accept the validity of the government’s move, as it pointed out the dreadful increase in drink-related trauma cases during the period when liquor was more widely available – the deaths and fights, the drunken driving, the costly clogging of emergency wards at hospitals, the waste of urgently needed resources. I had long known about those things as features of South African society (I believe that many international medical students come here just to learn about such trauma-fields on, usually, weekend nights), but this was a poignant reminder at a particularly poignant time.

Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg. Following the easing of restrictions on the sale of alcohol on 1June , a noticeable surge in trauma-related hospital visits was observed.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize argued the statistics: “Facilities reported up to 60% increase in trauma emergency centre admissions and up to 200% increase in ICU trauma admissions,” he said, and cited statistical models showing that the new ban could mean reducing hospital trauma admissions by 20%, as well as a 40% reduction of all alcohol-related trauma admissions by the third week of prohibition. “Each trauma case does not just take up a bed – it takes up staff, oxygen, medicines and other critical resources necessary for the management of Covid-19.”

That is not negligible. However, my initial sympathy was somewhat weakened by some challenges to the logic involved, and by, for example, the revelation that, at least in some parts of the country, there was as yet no threat to beds and treatment for Covid-19 patients. And that’s quite apart from the possibility of achieving much of the ban’s effects by means less desperately damaging to the industry. At the time of the first ban, one thing that came across strongly was not only a comparative lack of concern for the wine industry in particular (as the sector of the economy presumably most vitally and extensively affected by the ban), but an almost vindictive satisfaction in indulging neo-prohibitionist tendencies in parts of the government – not to mention the usefulness to the forces of law and order of finding a non-policing solution to what was, at least at the immediate level, a policing problem.

So the liquor industry as a whole suffers, and of course it will be its poorest and most vulnerable parts that will suffer the most.

Yet they nag at me incessantly, the images of those trauma units, of those drunken crashes, that domestic violence – all this appalling abuse of alcohol that causes such pain and anguish to the innocent as well as the “guilty”. And I can’t escape the image with blame – by invoking some “Us versus Them” structure that puts the problem all in one place. What has been happening has been a reminder of an aspect of the sickness of violence and abuse that chews like cancer at our society – the society of which we are all a part. (At the more genteel drinking end – us – there is hopefully less of the violence and the bingeing, but which reader of this website has not been, at the least, a drunken driver occasionally or habitually, or had one as a friend, for example?)

The wine industry – or the liquor industry as a whole – is not directly to blame for this symptom, this unhealthy relationship of South Africans with alcohol. Yet it is obviously deeply implicated. The wine industry is not just hard-working (impoverished) vineyard workers plus valiant winegrowers plus vinous heroes seeking out little plots of old vines to make splendidly nuanced chenins for us, plus ingenious and talented distributors and merchants, all contributing cheerfully to the GDP. It also has sections, for example, selling, at cheapest possible price, alcohol to make people drunk (beer sometimes does the trick best, sometimes cider, sometimes spirits – sometimes wine, in bottles, boxes, flagons and, who knows, papsaks filled with the dregs at the back of the winery on a Friday evening).

This is an industry working in a society, especially in the Western Cape, many of whose members are marked by being the ultimate victims of a system that at least used to nurture inebriation as a means of industrial and social control. It’s not a nice society, and ours is not an entirely nice industry. We’ve been reminded of that and I think we should stay reminded, once this is all over, and the industry is putting itself back together as well as it can (and saying farewell to those bits that have been irretrievably broken).

Every few years, some Scandinavian journalist or some human rights organization revives accusations about how little has changed in terms of social, notably racial, relations in the South African wine industry. Some of us wince and are reminded of what we’ve been ignoring, while others continue to deny – the details, at least. The moment passes and comparatively little is done by either of those camps. And now, with this damned pandemic and our struggles to survive it, we’re being reminded of another depressing aspect of an industry that brings heartache and pain as much as it does non-destructive pleasure. We can, and must, rally to defend and support the wine industry – or at least the bits of it we genuinely admire. And we must insist that, for good and ill, it is part of a greater whole. But we must also not forget the trauma, in the part and the whole.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

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