Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 22 November 2013

Tipping the vineyard: how the wine industry suffered from Apartheid-era affirmative action

There can't be a thinking person alive who still believes in affirmative action. Whatever its assumed advantages, (and in the case of the current system with its present beneficiaries, these were presumably the swift destruction of the artificial barriers imposed by the previous dispensation), it surely has reached its sell-by date. Most of the previously disadvantaged remain disadvantaged - except for the few who have managed to put enough money into their bank accounts to laugh at those who are left to beaver away for a living.

Call it whatever you will – BEE, quotas, job reservation – anything that skews a meritocractic selection-and-reward process is ultimately doomed to failure. It is an arrangement that comes with vast costs, in monetary terms as well as in human unhappiness, and which are never factored properly into the equation. Those for whom it has been designed know that it’s a con. They can never really believe they would have secured the job under normal circumstances, they are forced to embrace the artificiality of their compromised position and so, in time, they lose faith in themselves.

In short, giving someone a position to which he or she is not equal undermines the dignity of the recipient, so there is a real cost to be off-set against the potential gain. The scientific law of conservation of energy appears to have its equivalent in the field of human endeavour: you cannot add capacity without taking it away from something – and this applies as much to the individual as it does to the system. The economy pays for the inefficiency of affirmative action, as does the apparent beneficiary, and the class of beneficiaries. It is nothing short of insanity.

In the Apartheid era, the whites (and in particular, a class of whites) made full use of the affirmative action programme provided by the ruling party. It has been fashionable to assume that, over several generations, this induced a false sense of superiority. However, it is arguable that exactly the opposite occurred. The human brain is essentially a truth-seeking device: deep down, the over-promoted under-achiever is acutely aware of his/her inadequacy. Where there is gender inequality, the men who are paid more than the women who perform the same task tend to have to more fragile egos precisely because they know they are receiving something they have not actually earned. In pre-democratic South Africa, the bluster, bombast and aggression of the beneficiary of job reservation revealed an underlying sense of inadequacy, of privilege to which he/she was not entitled.

This was peculiarly evident in the old Cape wine industry. The whole system was skewed in favour of the Western Cape white vote, a key element in P.W. Botha’s power base. Protecting the country’s wine farmers was comprehensively built into the statute books, as much by way of the old KWV Act as in the fiscal dispensation which saw wine remain excise-free while beer was heavily taxed, relative to its alcoholic strength. The long-term weakening effect of this form of affirmative action is evident today: the KWV, deprived of its statutory powers, is a shadow of its former self, a stumbling and bewildered behemoth trying to find its way in an unfamiliar world. SABMiller on the other hand, forced to operate in an environment hostile to beer producers, has become a world-class operator, the planet’s second largest brewer, a company with a lethal culture of efficiency.

The old era winemakers may have seemed supremely over-confident, but much of this was the preening and bluster of the inescapably compromised. I remember suggesting to Gunter Brozel, cellarmaster of Nederburg, that we should do more to taste our wines competitively against the production of other countries and he replied “South Africa produces the best South African wines in the world.” That was it – we are kings of our own particular castles; let’s not test the battlements.

Getting the industry to agree to the 1995 wine ‘test match’ against Australia required sleight of hand and an inexorable momentum. Once we had been comprehensively beaten, the establishment – peopled by beneficiaries of the affirmative action policies of the old regime – united to put a stop to any further comparative tasting encounters. If you believe you are good enough to compete, you are not fearful of a showdown. It’s when you know – deep down – that you aren’t, that you call off the match. The leading figures in the world of South African wine at that time were compromised and undermined by their place in the Nationalist era equivalent of BEE. As an industry, we needed generational change before we could alter the mindset of inadequacy.

The wisdom of the patriarchs tells us that damage of this kind cannot be fixed: the slaves that Moses led out of Egypt did not enter the Promised Land – they were made to wander in the desert until the next generation had come of age. The grape growers and wine-farmers who lived off the fat of PW’s affirmative action programme were never really going to succeed under another dispensation. It’s hardly surprising that the success stories of the post-Mandela wine industry are either the youngsters (some not so young any more) who came into the world of Cape wine as political power was moving away from the winelands and the KWV was shedding its statutory authority, or had never been beneficiaries under the old dispensation.

Commenting on the admittedly eclectic list of Platter five star laureates the other day, some one said to me – ‘where have these people come from?’ – as if they had evaded the radar until the last possible minute. Many, of course, are simply of the generation destined to inherit the Promised Land. In winemaking terms, if you are younger than 43 you came into a wine industry that was not being run for the benefit of PW’s voters. If you are older than that, and English-speaking, you were at best a fellow-traveler, cynically making use of the gradient that had been designed to assist those closer to the god-head, your self-confidence bolstered by your outsider status.

Human beings are designed to rise above their limitations, not to wallow in them – that is the clear message of Darwin’s process of natural selection. The old adage “pauper to pauper in three generations” describes exactly the consequences of denying our DNA the drive that comes from hungering for achievement. Of course there are exceptions (the Rothschilds continue to build on the wealth established two centuries ago, and there are some exceptional winemakers and estate owners whose careers date back to the 1970s and 1980s.) However, what is inescapable is that the price of tipping the playing field is ultimately paid for in the long term unhappiness and inevitable failure of those for whom merit – as a criterion – no longer applies.

We only began building a world-class wine industry once the affirmative action handicap was removed from the equation – and it has still taken the better part of twenty years, the vinous equivalent of the mandatory time in the Sinai desert. As a country we will never become competitive – or, for that matter, a nation – until we create an equal opportunity environment and then leave the natural order to prevail. DM


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