Wine may be a beverage and the wine industry is just a business to many, but for South Africans, wine forms an integral part of their heritage and culture. Wine’s ability to bring people together and focus their attention on their collective well-being is truly inspiring. The quality and value offered by the best wines is truly world class. A winery manager once said that South African wine is so good that it can compete on the global market.
While wine sales are struggling to compete on the crowded, fragmented American market, he believes that hard work and high quality equate to a bright future for South African wines. He also commented, “the catering industry is also very dependent on us.” Recently export volumes and the values of the wine being exported have both increased to large markets like the US, China, and Africa. It is believed that Africa will become a significant wine market in the near future.
Jan van Riebeeck, the Cape’s first governor, is known as the father of wine in South Africa. He planted vines in 1655 and in 1659 the first harvest of South African wine was recorded. The results were promising so the Dutch began planting more vines in the area of Roschheuvel, (today called Bishopscourt and Wynberg). Van Riebeeck was a strong supporter of the new industry and urged reluctant farmers to plant more vineyards. Fortunately, the farmers listened and the vineyards began expanding past the Cape Town region. As the vineyards expanded and the wine industry grew, problems began to arise.
The biggest issue was most of the farmers lacked the knowledge needed to properly care for vines. Luckily, things began turning around when Simon van der Stel became governor in 1679. He owned his own vineyard on his farm, Constantia and was knowledgeable in both viticulture and winemaking. He was one of the first to make quality wines in the region, and his vineyard still produces some of the top wines in South Africa today. While South Africa has overcome many obstacles they still have many to face including water scarcity, higher input costs, shipping costs, and a land crisis.
Land disputes in South Africa’s wine regions have recently been at the center of controversy. There have been incidents of white farmers being murdered, intimidated, and forced from their farms. The most famous example of this occurred in 2018 at a wine estate owned by Stefan Smit. In May of 2018, locals first began to appear on Smit’s land and started illegally squatting. Smit obtained a restraining order, kicked the squatters out, and tore down the illegal shacks they had built. But by late July, the locals were had returned. This time Smit went to the High Court to full out an eviction application.
In December 2018 the courts sided with Smit, and the locals were ordered to leave. But even with the courts backing Smit, the locals refused to leave. Mr Smit started receiving threatening messages and he eventually gave up and agreed to sell the land to the Stellenbosch municipality for $3 million. In early June, four armed men walked into Smit’s house and shot him dead in front of his wife and friend. Although the case hasn’t been concluded yet, as it proceeds in court, it seems his murder was plotted by his wife.
Mixed-race and black South Africans make up more than 80% of the country’s population. Although contributing more than half of the workers in wine industry, many of these workers are not offered esteemed positions or leadership roles. Only a select few have any corporate ownership interest or land ownership. About 60% of the country’s 300,000 wine industry workers are employees of previously disadvantaged black and mixed-race groups.
The wine industry makes the lives of its workers unbearable and shows no concern for their wellbeing. They in turn are striving to take their place in an industry that has exploited and excluded them for decades
Such disparities are some of the reasons Graham Knox, a 45-year veteran of the South African wine industry, and Kate Jambela, a local housing developer, were driven to found The Township Winery in 2010. Their business model for the brand is a social justice-oriented growers’ cooperative made up of grape growers, winemakers, and others from the townships of Nyanga, Khayelitsha, and Philippi. Jambela, who identifies of ‘mixed South African race’, lives on the outskirts of Cape Town and is the majority owner of the winery.
Growing up during apartheid, she says she suffered under the system, but today she is a successful businesswoman committed to transforming the South African wine industry. Jambela, a representative of individuals impacted by inequality, says: “We want employment – not just as laborers, but as competent workers with genuine chances.”
Denise Stubbs started working in the wine industry in 2002 when she had the opportunity to work on the transformation of the industry that nearly undid her community. She was approached by Wellington’s Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate’s owner, David Sonnenberg, about collaborating with him to launch a wine label that would serve as an empowerment arm. Only 20% would be owned by Diemersfontein while the remainder would be held by Thokozani, the new label launched in 2005.
The Township winery is bringing winery rights into the cape community, meaning the community and vineyard will cohabit. In order to discourage individuals from taking land reform matters into their own hands, South Africa has an explicit policy that individuals or groups participating in land invasions, violence, or intimidation will not be privileged to enjoy the benefit of the reform.