Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 17 September 2014

Ashamedly South African, 101

It's a little difficult being proudly South African at the moment. The past few weeks have provided enough evidence for even the most blinkered patriots amongst us to abandon any belief in the competence, intelligence or integrity of our leaders. We have a police commissioner whose battle with the truth is in direct proportion to her memory loss, a deputy minister happy to concoct stories simply to ingratiate himself with his paymaster and a president who insists that his swimming pool and cattle kraal are essential for the security of the nation. Corruption is endemic – and the wine industry is not exempt.

It is abundantly clear – from the lack of embarrassment (let alone the lack of accountability) that accompanies incontrovertible evidence of dishonesty – that there has been a change of culture, one in which lying, together with avarice and corruption, are not qualities which provoke a sense of shame.

It is worth reflecting on what this means for the average South African. We know now – even ahead of release of the findings of the Farlam Commission – that the police set out to deceive the country when its officers gave evidence on the Marikana massacre. When you are not dealing with a rogue cop, but with institutional lying in the police force – from national commissioner (if not police minister) downwards – you know that there is no commitment to upholding the law. When officials and government ministers realise that there is nothing career-limiting about getting caught out – whether with fingers in the till or deceiving the electorate – they have no incentive even to pretend to do their jobs, or act in the public interest. When you cannot shame a public official into doing the honourable thing and resigning (I would prefer them to fall on their swords) because there is no sense of their actually having done anything wrong, and the president himself is too compromised to act, there is no functional sanction between one election and the next.

The worst of this is that it subverts reality: suddenly the basic laws under which the normal body politic would operate – the equivalent of gravity – no longer apply. You can leap out of the metaphorical equivalent of a 10th floor window and you won’t get hurt. Incompetence, inefficiency, squandering of funds, opportunities wasted, lives lost, futures compromised – all this doesn’t matter any more, they just become facts of life in an increasingly fantastical world. Once you understand this you realise why the hospital and education systems have collapsed: without the meaningful threat of prosecution no one is accountable, without accountability there’s no need to do a job, without consequences, it’s ok to steal and pillage. In fact – once you accept that this is where the logic leads – is it fair to hold Oscar Pistorius accountable for his actions when the cabinet and Luthuli House are exempt from this expectation?

Deceit can have direct and indirect costs. The amount by which Zuma’s personal wealth increased as a result of the upgrades at Nkandla is a direct expense, but the effect of his his trying to weasel his way out of paying it back has an indirect cost to the nation, to the dignity of his office, and to our faith in the organs of state. Every lie which goes unpunished compromises the ethical integrity of a nation and makes possible an infinite number of future deceits.

The decaying effect of a corrupt executive reaches way beyond the Guptas, an e-tolling system designed to enrich select comrades who get to share in the outrageous collection costs, the dysfunctional councils whose revenues are spread amongst a few officials so there are no funds available to deliver basic services like sewerage and water reticulation. The police routinely ‘lose’ case files for a small consideration, low level employees of state hospitals take an ‘entrepreneurial’ view on the supply of essential medicines to chronically ill patients, officials whose job it it is to apply a welter of arcane and seemingly non-essential regulations sit back and do nothing because there’s no point in pretending that anything really matters.

When there is institutionalised pillage, how much can a little – largely irrelevant – skullduggery matter? I am convinced that large volumes of ordinary drinking wine is being watered down – a flagrant breach of the laws which detail what may or may not be added to liquor products. I have commented on the ‘miraculous’ coincidence of ripe fruit flavours and low alcohols on several occasions, and no one has bothered to rise to the bait. The mere fact that many of the Cape’s high volume table wines have significantly lower alcohols than their more premium counterparts cannot have failed to garner the attention of the authorities who supervise the application of the relevant laws.

Ten years ago when I suggested that some winemakers were using flavourant to enhance the aromatic profile of their sauvignon blancs the response was instant and cacophonous. Now when I mention this remarkable state of affairs – where the flavours of these industrially produced table wines speak of super-ripe fruit while the alcohol levels suggest a much earlier harvest date – no one even raises an eyebrow. Why should they? High value tenders are granted to well-connected but deeply incompetent people, the police have become mass murderers and the president is engaged an endlessly evasive relationship with the truth.

Adding water to wine never killed anyone. As far as we know, at this point no dangerous and illegal additives are being used by producers. The beverage being produced by this (only slightly?) illegal sleight of hand may actually taste better as a result of the judicious use of H20. Is it even worth mentioning – especially when our international commercial competitors may take advantage of the information? Why don’t I join the conspiracy of silence since, on the surface at least, nothing turns on so unimportant a deceit?

The answer of course is that small lies beget bigger ones. I’ve seen a document in which a well known winemaker proposes an additive – illegal in the EU – for correcting an over-addition of a winemaking chemical. He dismisses the risk of prosecution by saying that the authorities in Europe never test for his proposed component. At the moment winemakers joke about “leaving a little water at the bottom of the vat” or talk about “the tap against the wall” – a sign of the climate of impunity which the current culture of lawlessness allows to prevail.

Right now the Cape wine industry is not hopelessly compromised. Watering high alcohol wines to bring them back to balance is actually permitted in some countries. Arguably it is better for the industry, it benefits the fiscus, and the end result is more palatable for the consumer. But it is a deceit, a dilution not simply of the wine but also of the integrity and reputation of the wine industry. Officials are employed not only to protect consumer interest but also to apply regulations which maintain a level playing field for commercial competitors. It seems that they cannot see the value of doing their jobs properly any more – and they may be right. What’s the point of the prefect blowing the whistle on the students snogging in the stairwell when the headmaster is hosting an orgy in the staff common room? DM


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