Black ownership of Cape wineries is happening, but the challenges are huge. By Graham Holter
Why aren’t there more black faces in the South African wine industry? It’s a question that has been put to Cape winemakers ever since the end of apartheid.
It’s asked with the best of motivations. But in one crucial aspect it misses the point. Black people have been involved since the very beginning. It’s just that their names did not appear above the door.
Making sense of South Africa’s post-apartheid racial settlement is not something that can be achieved by parachuting a white European journalist into a Cape Town exhibition hall for a three-day trade event. But there is a striking contrast, that only the most incurious mind could ignore, between the colour of the skin of those pouring the wines, and that of the people clearing away the empty glasses.
That’s not to imply that the winemakers at the show want it to be this way. Or to suggest that there are no black people running the stands. But when I attended my first Cape Wine expo, back in 2002, British journalists who demanded to know why so few black wineries were in evidence were told they were perhaps expecting too much too soon. Two decades on, looking around the exhibition space, it would take a keen eye to spot signs of progress.
At last month’s Cape Wine show, Wines of South Africa organised a seminar titled Black Excellence, hosted by Africa market manager Matome Mbatha. It was a chance to hear about four genuine success stories involving black-owned wineries, and to understand the struggles involved in building such businesses from scratch.
“There have always been black people farming these vineyards,” says Wade Sander of Brunia Wines in Stanford, Western Cape. “This is not a new thing.”
Paul Siguqa is the founder of Klein Goederust in Franschhoek. “Our biggest inspiration is our parents, the farm labourers,” he says. “You would go to all the wine shows, all the awards shows, and the accolades would go to the farm owner and the winemaker, and never the person that works the land.
“My mother used to say that in South Africa, you have the farm owners: they talk about intergenerational wealth. On the other side, you have the farm workers. We talk about intergenerational labour. And at some stage that needed to change.”
Sander makes the same point. The challenge now, he argues, “is about transitioning from black participation to black ownership … being involved in the entire value chain”.
Sander himself has been a winemaker since leaving high school and now farms 17 hectares of his own land, which he converted to organic viticulture. Siguqa is the proud owner of “the first and only 100% black-owned farm in Franschhoek”, a statement he says he finds rather bittersweet.
“South Africa has been free for 28 years,” he says. “Why did it take such a long time for [black people] to be farmers?
“The answer to that is purely our history. The history of oppression, the history of apartheid, and the history of segregation. Segregation went a lot deeper than depriving people of economic opportunity. It went as far as preventing people from having interpersonal relationships; to me being able to farm with my neighbours in an environment where we support each other.
“Land is the biggest barrier to black people participating in the industry. It took me 15 years to save enough money to buy what was a totally rundown farm.
“In my beautiful valley of Franschhoek you pay up to a million rand per hectare, and we’re talking about farming land, so that’s really expensive.”
Wade Sander had a similar struggle to find a suitable plot that was within budget. “We basically went from coast to coast; Swartland, all the way through Stellenbosch. In most of the more established wine regions and wine routes, there was no chance that we could afford land.”
Seeing fourth, fifth, sixth-generation farmers, I already knew that I was behind, you know?
Ntsiki Biyela is originally from KwaZulu-Natal, a province noted for sugar cane and bananas but not grapes. She started Aslina Wines in 2016, having taken advantage of a scholarship to attend university in Stellenbosch. Her wine course was in Afrikaans, a language that she struggled with. But this only strengthened her resolve to complete her degree.
Biyela is a board member of Pinotage Youth Development Academy, which trains young South Africans for careers in the wine industry. In many cases they already live in the Cape winelands, but don’t necessarily feel like stakeholders in the wine industry before they sign up to the academy.
Biyela talks about the young people who she has helped to mentor: “They didn’t know anything about wine and, worse than that, were living among the industry people [with] that feeling that they don’t belong here”.
The academy is playing its part in correcting this. “We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary,” Biyela says, “and it was fantastic to see all these young people who are now working in different jobs and being successful in their own right. And actually making a difference.”
Rüdger van Wyk is an acclaimed producer of cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at his Kara-Tara Wines estate in Stellenbosch. He got his first break with the Cape Winemakers Guild protégé programme, which immersed him in wine and gave him the chance to visit wine regions in France.
“When I got back I had the opportunity to be employed by Stark-Condé wines as assistant winemaker,” he says. “Jose Condé has actually played a massive role in my life as a mentor.” Condé has a stake in the business, and provides useful access to export distribution networks.
It’s daunting for young black winemakers like van Wyk to break into an industry that has already had nearly 400 years to establish itself. Paul Siguqa at Klein Goederust talks about the risks involved in starting from scratch and waiting for the investment in land, vines, equipment and people to start paying back. “I cannot afford to make any mistake, being a first-generation farmer,” he says. He was not too proud to ask a neighbouring winemaker for advice and mentorship, a request he says was received warmly.
Van Wyk picks up the point. “Seeing fourth, fifth, sixth-generation farmers, I already knew that I was behind, you know? I needed to start somewhere but I also wanted to make the best. I wanted to work with the best and learn from the best in South Africa.”
The seminar is brimming with positive energy. The speakers, and even some of the attendees making points from the floor, are greeted by warm applause. It’s easy to leave the room with the feeling that real change is underway.
Official figures report that, as of 2002, South Africa has 82 black-owned wine brands (out of around 2,600 producers in the country as a whole) and 71 black economic empowerment farmers. There are 313 hectares of black-owned vineyards supported with technical assistance. There are bursaries and training schemes that seem to be making a difference, and the effects will doubtless become apparent in the coming years, maybe even as soon as the next Cape Wine.
But perhaps, just as we were told back in 2002, we should not expect too much too soon. Back in my hotel room, on a news channel, a regional politician is quietly but forcefully reminding his audience that his community still does not have the promised access to basic amenities. All the time this remains the case, he insists, the struggle for equality, which many assumed would have ended in the mid 1990s, must continue.
We’re rightly impatient for a fairer racial balance in the Cape wine industry, and perhaps the scales are beginning to tilt, just a little. But this is a complicated country. Many of its black citizens still yearn for proper access to drinking water. Wine must seem like the most distant of dreams.