How the world aided South Africa's wine trade

South Africa has suffered greater than most countries during the Covid-19 pandemic. It has reported three times as many cases as any other African country, and many of the government’s attempts to curb the virus – closing borders, prohibiting or restricting the domestic sale of alcohol, and banning the transport of goods to the country’s ports – have had a damaging impact on the wine industry.

Initial forecasts by Vinpro indicated that 10% of all wine-related jobs would be lost, and 80 producers and 350 wine- growers were expected to close their doors. A July survey of wine grape producers, wineries and other wine-related businesses conducted by Vinpro found that 58% would have to make “drastic” changes over the next year to overcome the challenges brought on by Covid-19 and a further 22% will probably not survive at all. This figure increases to 46% for black-owned brands and farms that tend to be more reliant on the local market, hospitality, and cellar door sales, which completely disappeared as international and domestic tourism stopped. 

The domestic sale of alcohol has now been banned for four separate, prolonged spells since March 2020, and off-trade sales are still prohibited on weekends. The idea is to lessen the strain on the healthcare system by reducing the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions. Alcoholism remains a major healthcare challenge facing South Africa, an issue with roots in apartheid, when wine farms, particularly in the Western Cape, implemented the dop system, where workers would receive a daily truck payment of cheap wine. This exacerbated alcoholism, particularly among impoverished communities, and while the dop system may have been ended by Mandela’s government in the 1990s, its destructive legacy persists. 

By some accounts, prohibition has been largely effective in its aims, but the blanket approach has ravaged the wine industry and the policy has become embroiled in controversy. Zweli Mkhize, the country’s former minister of health who led South Africa’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, resigned in August after being found at the centre of a corruption scandal when it was revealed that he received tender in exchange for awarding government contracts. 

“They have created an implosion through a combination of historical neglect of their duties and an inappropriate response to the pandemic,” says Bruce Jack, founder of the eponymous wine brand. “The wine industry has been changed forever by the bans. It has been hurt and weakened and the long-term effects of this on job creation and the fabric of rural Western Cape will be felt for decades. It is now, more so than before, up to the businesses that have survived in this environment to provide things like food relief, infra- structure, and educational opportunities, as it is clear national government neither want to help our poor, rural communities, or are even capable of doing so.

“Instead of creating extra critical care capacity in our hospitals it is much easier to close down elements of the economy and this short-term gain has a long-term pain and sectors of the South African economy so crucial to sustain- able job creation like wine and tourism will suffer for decades.