by Tim Atkin

Where now for post-World Cup South Africa?

The idea of golf being used as a symbol for the new, racially integrated South Africa might sound absurd to some. You’ve only got to walk around a top course in the Cape to realise that golf remains the preserve of a white elite. But there was something heart-warming about the sight of Louis Oosthuizen, an Afrikaner from conservative Mossel Bay, embracing his black caddie, Zack Rasego, on the final hole of The Open Championship this week.

Cynics might view Oosthuizen’s decision to employ Rasego as politically correct window dressing, but cynics would be wrong. The two men have worked together for seven years and are established professional partners. I also liked the fact that both refused to put a political slant on their working relationship. “As South Africans, we are a rainbow team,” Rasego told The New York Times, “but really it’s politics aside. Golf is a sport. We cannot put politics into sport.”

The same rainbow spirit was visible at the 2010 World Cup, where South Africans set aside racial and political differences to cheer on their team. For all its failings (not enough good matches, bad refereeing and the usual complaints about FIFA), the World Cup was an organisational triumph. South Africa can congratulate itself on hosting an event that was professional, friendly and well run.

Now that the World Cup is over, South Africa can focus on more pressing matters. It’s self-evident that the majority of its population remains desperately poor — only Brazil, which will host the next World Cup, has a greater disparity between haves and have nots. It’s also worth pointing out that poverty is relative in Africa. Contrast South Africa with countries such as Swaziland, Uganda, Senegal and Zambia and it starts to look like a prosperous nation. But even the most fervent ANC supporter would admit that meaningful economic change has been slow since 1994.

Where does wine fit into this? It may make a comparatively small contribution to South Africa’s GDP, but in terms of profile Cape wine is extremely important for the country, helping to generate a positive national image. It is difficult to calculate the long-term international impact of the World Cup on sales, not least from the tens of thousands of supporters who visited South Africa, but they are likely to be significant.

Superficially at least, South African wine is doing well in the UK. As the recent OLN wine report pointed out, its market share rose to 10.7% in the last year. But that’s only part of the story. Apart from Germany, South Africa is the only one of the top ten exporting countries with an average price point below £4. Most of its sales are cheap own-labels and brands flogged on promotion.

£3.89 is not a sustainable price point. There are several reasons for this, including a strong rand, rising input costs, a small 2010 harvest and the global recession. Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa, says that “producers are saying that they can’t survive at that low a retail price. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to be in the UK (it is a natural market for us), but they are looking to move wine at better prices.” Otherwise, she adds, they will be forced to sell wine elsewhere.

South Africa’s failure to develop its premium wine sales will lead to “blood on the table” if the situation doesn’t improve, according to Bernard Fontannaz of Fairtrade producer Origin Wine. It has also contributed to the glacial pace of social and economic change in the winelands themselves.

To take only one example, Fundi, one of the highest profile initiatives during the World Cup, failed to reach its target of training 2010 previously disadvantaged people as wine waiters partly because of lack of funding. WOSA plans to continue with the project, but it fell 700 waiters short of its goal. “In a depressed market,” comments Birch, “it’s hard for producers to give more money.”

People of colour, to use the politically correct term, have yet to make a significant impact in the wine industry. There are a handful of successful black-owned brands, such as Thandi, Seven Sisters and M’hudi, but most have struggled. There are a few prominent individuals at wineries like Nederburg, Flagstone and SFW, while the KWV and Distell have creditably complied with the government’s recommendation that 25% of wine businesses should be in black hands, but that’s hardly a revolution.

Jacob Zuma and the ANC have other priorities at the moment. For them, wine is a sideshow. WOSA receives a paltry R1m for promotion from the government; other than that, the wine industry has to fund and sell itself. “The government doesn’t recognise how important wine is as a brand builder,” says Birch, “and also as an employer of unskilled labour.”

Do we in the UK have a role to play here? Indeed we do. By increasing the amount of money consumers are prepared to pay for South African wine, we can help to effect social change. Unskilled labour doesn’t have to remain unskilled labour for ever, but it needs money as well as will power to make the transition.

First published in Off Licence News

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