No getting carried away as alcohol ban is relaxed

On the anniversary of the beginnings of the South African wine industry, Christian Eedes reflects on the alcohol ban, past challenges the wine industry has faced, and the need for the entire alcohol industry to pull together to help overcome the serious social problem South Africa has with alcohol.

Reprinted from, by Christian Eedes – 2021-02-02

It seems only appropriate that the easing of the third alcohol ban related to combating the spread of Coronavirus should coincide to the day with the South African wine industry’s 362nd anniversary –we know the exact date on which the local wine industry began thanks to the 2 February 1659 diary entry of Jan van Riebeeck, official of the Dutch East India Company and First Commander of the Cape: ‘Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.’

As has been widely publicised recently, it is not happy days for the industry. There have been some 20 weeks altogether of alcohol bans since the first lockdown was declared in March 2020, this amounting to an overall loss of more than R8 billion in direct sales revenue, according to industry body Vinpro. Furthermore, the industry currently has more than 640 million liters of stock of which 300 million is uncontracted. To put this into perspective, the total volume of South Africa’s wine exports last year was 319.2 million litres. With this year’s harvest now under way, a rather large surplus looms…

It’s sometimes seems as if it’s the end of the ages but truth be told, SA wine has always been extraordinarily tumultuous. Consider, for instance, that although a quarter of the Cape’s vines were destroyed by phylloxera during the 1890s, replanting was so enthusiastic and the resulting grape surplus so large that in 1918 the Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika (KWV) came into being – a ‘super co-operative’ formed with full government backing. For decades, overall regulation gave incentives on the basis of volume, rather than price, with obvious implications for quality.

More recently, the industry has undergone fundamental structural change and attendant quality revolution bought about by the end of apartheid.  On the one hand, KWV had to relinquish its statutory powers while on the other, the re-opening of export markets attracted new investment – the number of primary grape growers decreased dramatically from 4 786 in 1991 to 2 778 at present while several new, independently owned farms and cellars were established, the current number of wineries at 533.

What happens next? With no real sense of how long Covid-19 will continue to take its toll, it is interesting to note that Vinpro feels that “it must… ensure that our industry is not again switched on and off nationwide like a light switch by government, regardless of variation in Covid-19 status in the respective provinces” and hence will go ahead with the court application that was launched in the Cape High Court on 27 January, seeking relief which would afford the Premier of the Western Cape the power to control the sale of liquor in the province. A third wave of infections must be a probability, if not an inevitability, and however clumsy the alcohol ban has proved, it is not clear what other measures the national government has when it comes to ensuring sufficient hospital capacity to treat patients.

Unfortunately, it seems there is an element of “Us vs Them” to how the wine industry and the national government have interacted over the course of the Coronavirus crisis. Nearly 27 years after the first free and fair elections, it cannot be denied that the domestic market remains under-developed, labour conditions are still an issue, especially for casual workers, and the industry has made only partial moves towards meaningful black ownership – it therefore cannot come as a complete surprise that the industry has so little leverage with the national government.

Moreover, it is not too far-fetched to regard the alcohol ban as not just heavy-handed and badly thought out but rather rooted in a paternalist desire by black leaders to rescue ordinary people from the ravages of history that very much includes alcohol dependency as Jonny Steinberg, Professor of African Studies at Oxford University, put it in a column last year.

In any event, you’d have to be extremely bloody-minded to argue that South Africa does not have a problematic relationship with alcohol, misuse heavily implicated in domestic violence and drunk driving. It is therefore encouraging that there finally seems to be an acknowledgement that a meaningful conversation needs to be had about creating a healthier alcohol culture. In its latest media release, Vinpro speaks of “remain[ing] committed to finalising a social compact, which includes other liquor sectors, government and civil society, to collaboratively find more sustainable solutions to social problems around alcohol abuse and to change behaviour over the long term”.

Advocacy in words but not backed by deeds will not suffice. Policy interventions are not difficult to imagine – an increase in the minimum age for purchasing and consuming alcohol from 18 to 21, all alcoholic products to pass a mandatory quality test and a limit on what a private individual can buy at any one time are just some suggestions – these need to be debated, agreed upon by all stakeholders and then implemented. It’s a process that needs to begin immediately unless prohibition and other extreme state behaviour become the order of the day.


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