published on The Buyer
14 January 2021
We have all had to face the damaging impact of Covid-19, but none more so than in South Africa as wine producer, Bruce Jack, explains in this deeply personal account of life on the front line of a pandemic and government alcohol ban.
This is going to sound strange, but…I knew something unusual would happen in 2020.
Exactly a year ago I flew into Barcelona to start our annual La Báscula winemaking trip. Ed Adams MW, my partner, flew in from Bath and I from Cape Town, because our main hub is Pepé Fuster’s winery just outside the town of Gandesa in the underexplored, intriguing wine region of Terra Alta, just south-west of Barcelona.
A day’s blending with Pepé is always followed by a traditional Catalan dinner at Restaurant Angel in Pinell de Brai. This ancient, secluded village is home to an alluring, Gaudi-inspired cooperative cellar. Built in 1919, architect Cèsar Martinell blended traditional Catalan architecture and the ‘modernista’ aesthetic – it is cathedral-like and beautiful.
An early start the following morning with temperatures just below 0oC and the long drive across Spain to Santiago de Compostella in Rias Baixas, via Olite and time with our partners in Rioja, Bodegas Manzanos. Freezing fog on the highlands and snow in the mountain passes are always a shock after the blustery heat of a Cape summer. But if you know where to look, Spanish truck-stop food can be a wonder of the culinary world and I was soon in the zone.
Four days later we were blending Albarino with our partners in Galicia at Pazo de Cilleiro. That evening we celebrated our fifteenth La Báscula vintage at the stately bar in the bowels of the imposing Hostal dos Reis Católicos, right next to Santiago Cathedral on Obradoiro Square. I love bars and churches, especially when they are this impressive and alongside one another.
Five days strategizing and talking wine with one of the most experienced and intelligent MWs around is inspirational and just the tonic I need heading into a challenging South African harvest.
It was a wonderful trip – maybe the most rewarding yet, but I flew home with a shadowy concern hanging ominously around the fringes of my sunny outlook.
While drinking through a magnificent line-up of Licor de Hierbas (the captivating and generally misunderstood Galician herbal liqueur) the night before, we had discussed the new virus making headlines. We both noted how dramatic the Chinese reaction had been to the Wuhan outbreak – clearly something different from previous health threats, requiring extraordinary action. And if there is one truth I am sure of, actions speak louder than words.
In my little notebook on the flight back I did a scenario planning exercise for the year ahead – I use Clem Sunter’s methodology – the Suffolk-born, Winchester College man I first heard speak as a schoolboy in the early 1980s. He was traveling around South Africa outlining a ‘high road’ and a ‘low road’ for the country – the ‘high road’ required the Apartheid government to negotiate with the exiled ANC and begin the process of Mandela’s release – not something many considered plausible then.
Interestingly, Sunter, was also the only person to predict (in one of his scenario planning books) the 9/11 ‘plane attacks on the World Trade Towers. By the time I landed, my Sunter scenario rubric had filled me with dread.
Despite ridicule by friends, I prepared for impending Armageddon by arranging for our team to work from home and restocking the farm larder with eclectic booze supplies. I focused on a diverse range of spirits and mixers with the goal of having a different cocktail every night for six months during a China-style lockdown.
I was never worried about running short of loo paper, because I have read ‘The Specialist’. First published in the USA in 1929 by Charles “Chic” Sale, it tells the story of Lem Putt, specialist outhouse builder. I was thus in the know about corn cribs, etc… and was prepared to sacrifice my extra copy Encyclopaedia Britannica if necessary.
Another two chest freezers were ordered, and an extra diesel tank installed for the tractors. By the end of January, I was entrenched. I thought I was ready for harvest and ready for a lockdown.
Nothing could prepare…
Of course, I wasn’t ready. I was blindsided by two things – the almost country-wide dysfunctionality of municipal support structures and a blanket alcohol ban, including a ban on wine exports, which was a kick in the stomach.
As a result, the last 10 months have not been the cocktail- and cigar-fuelled haven I had planned, but rather a psychological assault course that has left all of us in this industry battered… and some of us already broken.
Unlike in the UK or Europe, this country doesn’t have the financial resources to compensate businesses or individuals for their loss of income. We have a government structure called the UIF (the Unemployment Insurance Fund) which was called upon to provide income to employees whose employer was totally shut down. This required a reconfiguration of their IT system, which they proved unable to do effectively.
As a result, last year they jerked and lurched along like a crumbling old jalopy, rattling west in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Well meaning, but found wanting.
Continual computer system breakdowns, mismanagement and apparent fraud resulted in inconsistent and tardy delivery of only a portion of some employees’ salaries. Many in industries like tourism, hospitality and wine had to get a bank loan to keep employees properly and timeously compensated. That has resulted in a debt and servicing charges I hadn’t planned for.
The financial destruction continues. Local sales of wine have been restricted since the beginning of lockdown and are currently totally banned once again for an indefinite period.
Wine’s toxic government non-relationship
Almost worse than the financial fallout was discovering how the wine industry is perceived by our government. There are powerful people in parliament who only see the toxic relationship between alcohol and the populace. This is a reality in many poor communities unfortunately. There is also a much-vocalised belief that this is a direct legacy of apartheid and colonialism and this underpins much of the fervent anti-alcohol rhetoric which shows no signs of abating.
‘Big Beer’, in particular, is blamed for destroying more wealth than it creates. SAB (AB InBev) has recently given up trying to argue against this and gone the legal route, challenging the constitutionality of the latest ban in court.
While it may be true that the on-going disintegration of the wine industry is collateral damage caused by this attack on big industry beer, it is similarly correct that the State of Disaster Declaration and our President’s leadership style gave strong, key individuals within his cabinet enormous power last year. They took a rare opportunity to ‘fix’ the abuse of beer. In so doing, they were probably trying to do the right thing. But that’s no solace to an industry in collapse as a result.
Alcohol-related hospital trauma admittance does indeed drop every time an alcohol ban is imposed, and although this cannot fully be attributed to the bans because curfews and taking cars off the road play a major role, they do contribute. Whenever hospital capacity is stretched, a quick fix is needed, and local alcohol sales are closed.
We have argued that the widespread destruction of wealth and the dismantling of the economy by the Zuma-led ANC had already led to the hopelessness and misery we see. And this reality is a major reason for alcohol abuse, not the other way around. South Africa’s deep societal ills require a more holistic solution. An honest reflection on the root causes is the first step. That introspection may eventually materialise, but not in the short term.
It is also common knowledge that the now endemic, deep corruption had already, prior to the lockdown, destroyed most societal safety nets affecting the poor – including hospital capacity and social welfare efficacy.
I watched how things unravelled at municipal level as the brutal realities of lockdown hit. Of South Africa’s 278 municipalities, only 21 had a clean audit for the 2019 financial year. Arrests are rare despite the recent Auditor General’s report exposing over R32-billion in irregular expenditure – for ‘irregular expenditure’ read illegally awarded tenders (often for family), blatant theft, material misstatements, refusing to hand over documentation, embezzlement, etc…
In our hour of need, most local government representatives country-wide, on full pay, disappeared behind discontinued mobile ‘phone numbers.
Piecemeal workers, like those sub-contracted by the construction sector, are usually paid on a weekly basis. Within a few weeks of the lockdown many had run out of cash. When municipalities were approached to help arrange food relief, the vast majority claimed it was not their responsibility. And in poor, rural farming areas like ours it was the farmers, churches, mosques, charity and civil organisations (like Rotary, Gift-of-the Givers and Red Cross) who responded to the unfolding humanitarian disaster.
Matters in our own hands
In the southern Overberg where we farm, my neighbours donated sheep and venison. Farmers further afield arranged to swap fruit and vegetables for our meat. Trucks of butternuts arrived from Robertson, apples from Ceres. Closed-down rural restaurants like the one on Black Oystercatcher Wine Estate, started making hearty broths for daily distribution to the most in need. My most active chat group at the time was “Overberg Food Relief”.
While the cohesion and nobility of the effort was impressive, we could all see this wasn’t sustainable. There was very little money coming in from outside.
That was when we decided to change the focus of our HeadStart charitable trust from music education to food relief. Our mission was to support those already engaged with food relief (like soup kitchens) by using our network and communication channels to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
We supported this by utilising our drivers and delivery vehicles to distribute the food we had purchased. We repurposed the estate winery as a central food depot. At one stage we had 60 tons of donated apples from my friend Robert Graaff, of Graaff Fruits, in our barrel room. Thanks to my friend Scott Millar, it was the delicious smell of 700 freshly baked loaves of bread that filled the fermentation cellar every Wednesday.
The brilliant Bruce Jack Wines marketing manager, Catherine Searle, worked zealously to ensure our HeadStart Trust was endorsed by the international charity platform, Global Giving. This gave us international exposure. A steep learning curve was inevitable and the hard work a healthy distraction, but I was unprepared for the emotional roller-coaster that followed.
Something breaks inside you when the eyes of a barefoot child in a food queue are full of fear. Where there should be carefree joy, hunger has displaced with confusion and panic. It’s not right.
In the middle of our wettest winter in 20 years those food queues were often in the rain; apparently because our local government could not avail themselves to make municipal halls available.
At our busiest, we contributed to the feeding of 10,000 to 20,000 people a week. We distributed food to soup kitchens in Bredasdorp (through Annette Events), Struisbaai and Elim (through Black Oystercatcher Estate), Stanford (through Stanford Rotary), Hermanus (through Red Cross and Food4Love), Elim children (through Hope Give Hope) and our own village of Napier (through various soup kitchens).
Experienced charity campaigners often talk about the humbling effect of such work. I had never understood what they meant.
One day in a food queue I recognised an artisan who had built a wall for me on the farm. He is a hard-working, good-natured, honest guy. He was looking away, maybe hoping I wouldn’t recognise him. You know in your heart he doesn’t want to be there. It is crushingly demeaning and disempowering. He shouldn’t have been there. But he was; and he embodied the bitter unfairness of life that can ensnare any of us at any time – crushing our confidence, grinding our self-worth into dust. That’s when you feel humble. It’s also when you realise food relief is a short-term, fleeting solution, not the real answer.
And that insight is overwhelmingly depressing. It takes some time to gather yourself, to draw yourself up, and try once again to be that beacon of comfort that you naively thought you had the wherewithal to be. Suddenly the pressure sits crushingly on your shoulders. You realise with dismay you are as unsure and as lost as everyone else.
If you have ever surfed and been held under the water after a wipe-out on a massive wave, you might know what this feels like. The surface of the water is like concrete when you hit it at speed. That’s the moment you know you have made the mistake. Brutally it knocks the wind out of you. The churning mass of overpowering energy holds you under, twisting you around and upside down. It’s ear-splittingly loud. It’s dark. You have no way of telling which way is up. And your lungs are empty.
You only survive because you have been there before. From a youngster you have experienced the small power of small waves and as you have grown you have paddled further out and ridden bigger waves and progressively become familiar with increasing danger. You have always managed to pop up into fresh air after a wipe-out because you have trained yourself not to panic. Panic = death. Over many hours in the water you gain the experience to relax in the face of panic, to slow everything down and to have faith that you’ll be OK.
I had never done real charity work in the face of an unravelling reality. I was unprepared and overwhelmed and I think panicked. I broke out in a weird rash. I couldn’t sleep for nights in a row. The wine industry was shut down, my business was closed and the money had dried up. I ran out of cash and couldn’t pay my team. I had exhausted my leverage with the bank. My world was imploding and people were starting to starve around me. I abhor dogma in any form, so most religions are lost on me, but my grandmother, the musician and spiritualist Elsie Fraser-Munn instilled in me a belief in the power of prayer. I started praying. It helped keep panic at bay.
It was easy to predict that alcohol will be banned again when the second wave became problematic, so we were mentally a bit better prepared when, on December 28 2020, the third ban became reality. This week, on January, 11 it has been extended indefinitely.
Because of the near complete destruction of our public services by Zuma-led ANC corruption, the government are left with no other options, but to ban alcohol to free up already pressurised hospital capacity. But it’s like using a sledgehammer to instal a little brass screw, and the long-term socio-economic devastation it will cause in the wine industry will far outweigh the damage Covid-19 will cause to the same area.
The moral disintegration of the ANC accelerated during the Zuma years. If the country’s coffers hadn’t been looted, if proper care had been exercised by the ANC office-bearers responsible for the well-being of our people, we would have had sufficient hospital capacity to handle this pandemic and we wouldn’t have had to shut down the wine industry.
(Bruce Jack explaining the work that the HeadStart foundation has been able to do to provide food banks during the country’s lockdowns)
Faced with such entrenched and resolute anti-alcohol sentiments the outlook is bad. We should expect further longer-term restrictions on alcohol trade alongside significantly higher duties.
This will not be about targeting wine producers. I’ve heard all the race-tinged conspiracy theories and they bore me. The reality is that we are a relatively insignificant pawn in a bigger political survival game.
It is true that alcohol abuse is a big social issue. But it is also true that our government has, to date, proven itself incapable of successfully addressing even minor social welfare issues (try continuous electricity, housing, sanitation and other basic service delivery) which have nothing to do with alcohol abuse. Due to endemic corruption, blanket dysfunctionality and the underlying social welfare safety net is similarly in disrepair, held together by the flimsiest of threads. We have probably passed the point of no return in this regard. As we saw with food relief during the first wave of the pandemic, it will increasingly be civil society that fills the gaps.
And this is one silver lining. Civil society has been strengthened by this pandemic and has suddenly become far more relevant and therefor powerful. Religious, community and charity organisations (as well as key individuals) previously side-lined by the political machine have demonstrated their critical role to society. Now the majority see that the machine is broken, a quiet revolution is undeniably afoot – one that will see civil society accumulate more influence and resilience. This was needed and can only be good for South Africa.
Another silver lining is the dismantling of the Zuma-era power base. While Covid-19 captured the headlines the factional battle within the ANC was raging out of sight. The trickle of arrests, especially for high-level corruption, is turning into a sparkling little stream of hope. Like one of my heroes, Desmond Tutu, I have long given up on the ANC, but the pandemic has changed the rules and if rotten apples are crushed under the wheels of their internal strife that feels like a silver lining. Maybe it will also ensure local government works harder for their communities.
With schools shut again, we have had to put the HeadStart Trust’s music education programme back on hold. Simultaneously, the pleas for food have increased. I can hear civil society take a collective breath and wearily clamber out of the trenches and into battle again. As of next week, we will redouble our food relief efforts in anticipation of the growing need. Winter is once again around a dark corner.
Working to survive
We also must keep afloat ourselves. That creaking jalopy called the UIF seems to have broken down in the desert and all financial support has disappeared like the mirage it was. We will now have to lay people off. I am not sure where to begin with that disheartening task.
Banning alcohol may keep trauma patients out of hospital in the short-term, but it doesn’t fix the root of the alcohol abuse problem – that is like trying to fix the scourge of crime by jailing starving pickpockets. Without a functioning economy there will never be job creation and there will always be despair, alcohol abuse and crime. Banning alcohol will also not stop transmission of the virus.
What it will do is establish and encourage the illegal, sometimes police-facilitated, production and distribution of alcohol – unregulated alcohol that will often be unsafe to consume and fail to provide income for government or tax-generating job creation.
During the first lockdown and the first banning of alcohol, the industry made a well-considered proposal to government. If wine was responsible for taking up much needed beds, the wine industry would build hospitals in key areas, staff them and run them. We would use deferred duty payments to do so -money the government would not be getting anyway. This would relieve the pressure on hospital beds. In return the government would continue to allow the responsible sale of wine. Government refused.
Massive over supply
As South Africa looks to start its 2021 harvest it is faced with up to 65% of its 2020 crop still sitting in tanks, according to Bruce Jack
With less than a week before the 2021 harvest, the industry collectively has more than 640 million litres of wine in stock. This is 65% of an average harvest. There isn’t enough storage capacity to process the new grape crop. This massive train wreck is happening in slow motion and there’s nothing we can do to avert it. This is a direct result of the local alcohol ban.
Disastrous as this is, it is the longer-term fallout that is more catastrophic. The biggest brand owners in the local market – the likes of Distell and DGB have, like wine businesses of all sizes, been cut off at the knees. Like many of us they are heavily exposed to the local market. The devastating curtailment of these businesses will have a systemic impact. An implosion is inevitable.
If the biggest players can’t sell their wine brands, they can’t buy bulk wine, and the whole house of cards collapses. This result is unprofitable wine grape farms – most already operating on a knife edge and leveraged to the hilt.
Farmers will either change to an alternative crop or try to sell their farms. Unfortunately, repurposing a farm requires further funding and money is too scarce to lend to precarious agricultural redevelopment. The loss of hundreds of hectares of vineyards and the consolidation or abandonment of farms will follow. It is reported that around 100 000 jobs may be destroyed over the next two years. I think this is conservative.
Long term ramifications
The South African wine industry faces long term ramifications from the Covid alcohol bans
As the structure of the industry is altered forever, we will not be able to produce the same volume of wine at a market-required price. This will destroy suppliers like third party bottlers and an entire service industry that exists only as a result of wine. The ramifications should be seen as early as mid-2022.
A young, recently married winemaker in the Bruce Jack Wines team applied in December last year for a first-time home-loan. He was denied because he put ‘winemaker’ as his occupation and was told he was too high risk. Financial institutions like banks and insurance companies have already factored in the inescapable unravelling.
How quickly we are able to adapt and transform will determine the individual viability of each of our businesses. At least we know it is about to get a lot worse. The challenge now is making the right decisions because there is no more room for error. That luxury has been stolen by the people who stole our tax-payers money that should have gone to maintaining hospital capacity and other social services. None of those moral degenerates are in prison, but now the wine industry is.
The storm clouds are moving in, the light is fading, and the impending dark is seething with malevolence for the South African industry. Each step we take through this dark time will either result in failure or a fleeting reprieve until we have to make the next step. The odds are stacked heavily against. The industry will lose much talent to overseas wine producers.
Those who chose to stay must somehow keep positive, because that’s the only way opportunities pop up. We cannot be so preoccupied with our survival that we slowly dissolve into the shadows of our former selves.
As I write this 20cm of snow has just fallen on Pepe Fuster’s vineyards in Terra Alta. This evening Steady (that’s Ed Adams MW) and I should have been eating Catalan lamb with him – toasting 2021 with the restaurant’s homemade Rancio Garnatxa.
Instead, we wave at each other via a video call and wish each other good health.
“I will see you soon, my friend!” Pepé shouts from the other side of the world.
“The elephants, lions and the giraffes are waiting, Pepé!” I remind him, “the African bush is calling you, my friend!”
“I will bring Catalan wine to drink with Kudu on the fire,” he laughs.
Miriam, his wife (and the local doctor), waves to me as they plunge through the snow on their morning walk.
I am filled with joy at this brief interaction and it gives me hope. It reminds me that while the chaos and destruction swirl around us, we still have plans and friends and good wine. And that can be enough, not only to sustain us, but motivate and fire us up.
Yes. We have safaris to plan, wines to dream up, bread to break.
I will light a braai for dinner and pour a glass of crisp, cold South African Chenin Blanc – with the aromas of sweet nectarine and orange zest and the flavours of resilience.
Then I will dig out my little notebook and do some scenario planning. You may have more to throw at us, 2021, but we aren’t going down without a fight.