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Prohibition threatens wine industry’s survival

Estates along South Africa’s wine route are pleading to be allowed to trade or risk having to close for good.

The ban on the sale has seen small, mainly family-run wine farms and producers temporarily closing their doors as the government tries to grapple with the shortage of hospital beds for Covid-19 patients.

When the suspension on alcohol sales was lifted under level 3 regulations, “facilities reported up to 60% increase in trauma emergency centre admissions and up to 200% increase in ICU trauma admissions”, mainly for violence and vehicle accidents, said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. 

The wine producers argue the industry is made up of mainly small business owners who won’t be able to operate without revenue for more than a few months. 

 Maryna Calow, a spokesperson for Wine of South Africa (Wosa), the international marketing agency for the local industry, said the wine business goes beyond just fermented grapes in a bottle. “It’s not just wine sales. Wine tourism forms parts of what so many of these producers do. It’s a tasting room, a restaurant, or even a guest house.” 

Wine is an agricultural product that contains alcohol. Not an alcoholic beverage that contains agriculture

Francois Rossouw

According to Wosa, the South African wine industry contributes more than R40-billion to the South African economy catering for almost 300 000 jobs. 

Some wine producers are even pleading with foreign buyers to buy more of the local product to see the industry through tough times. 

“Our exports are going to be the saving grace for those who export wine. But many producers solely rely on locals,” Calow adds. 

Catherine Gerakaris of Gerakaris Family Wines said the unbanning of alcohol sales in June was a relief, but no one anticipated that booze would be banned a second time.

“Everything just stopped. Our customers are locals. People would come sit in the garden, order a cheese board and have a glass of wine. We had good brand loyalty and people supported us. But no one saw the ban coming again, so nobody stocked up,” she said. 

Gerakaris said the duration of the ban would determine whether the business survives or not. “Fortunately we have a small staff contingency to support. But in this industry, everyone is hands-on. From the making to the selling. We can ride out the next couple of months. Fingers crossed, it won’t be longer than that.”

So upset are wine estates with the prohibition, they have now sued the government. In papers filed in the high court in Pretoria this week, the South African Agri Initiative (SAAI) called the regulation irrational. 

“Wine is an agricultural product that contains alcohol. Not an alcoholic beverage that contains some agriculture. A glass of wine sold in a regulated space like a restaurant can’t be compared to a taxi loaded to 100 percent capacity,” said SAAI chief executive Francois Rossouw, comparing the ban to other lockdown regulations. 

Wendy Pekeur, founder of Ubuntu Women and Youth on Farms, said if the ban continues, it would be the most vulnerable people in rural areas who would suffer.

“A lot of people who work on the estates are not just farmhands. They’re waiters and work in the tasting rooms as well. It’s young people. There will also be a great impact on particularly women and seasonal workers, she said. 

Wine is a blessing and burden, particularly in the Western Cape. It is a major contributor to the economy but is stained by the legacy of the dop system — alcohol abuse. 

Pekeur said although the ban will have a positive effect on reducing the level of assaults and gender-based violence, the product is the lifeblood to sustain hundreds of thousands of livelihoods.

“It’s a chicken and egg situation. We know that alcohol is a contributor to trauma in our communities. But the people who work on farms in the wine industry do so to support their families,” she said. 

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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