Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 29 September 2015

South Africa’s wine industry: A palatable meritocracy

The fight over the levelness (or otherwise) of playing fields in South Africa is about the marginal positions secured or lost in the battle for privilege. Once objective criteria no longer apply, you advance yourself by obtaining advantage. But there are no handouts in the wine industry. It doesn't lend itself to black economic empowerment deals so it has been largely bypassed by the vultures. It is one of the few meritocratic games in town.

When Sean Abbott’s freak fast ball killed Phil Hughes in 2014, the cricket world went into shock and Australia went into mourning. Talk to anyone who was in the country at the time, and you will notice two things: firstly, how even the people who didn’t care about cricket and had never even known of Hughes’s existence before the tragedy were caught up in it. Secondly, that the country as a whole went into support mode for Abbott, the unintentional perpetrator of the sporting catastrophe. The country did not turn into a welter of recriminations, but instead united in the face of the disaster.

Compare this to how South Africa faces a crisis. Firstly, even if politicians aren’t implicated, they get involved. The blame game becomes a dog-fight and events which anywhere else would be treated with neutrality become politicised. Bus crashes, taxi accidents, the death of a minister on the Polokwane highway – no sooner have these these calamities occurred than the point-scoring begins. Other nations unite in the face of devastation, we go for the cheap points.

The same used to be said of the Cape wine industry. The legacy of its apartheid-era Afrikaner domination was an all-powerful control board. In much the same way as the National Party of old established itself as a gate-keeper, managing the flow of information and ‘owning’ the power of recognition, KWV maintained a direct influence over who or what constituted the vinous mainstream. Where you were allowed to plant grapes, what varieties were authorised for planting, where you could get the plant material, what price you could sell your fruit or wine for, the affordability of your route to market, whether or not your wine could be certified for sale (and whether or not it received the coveted ‘superior’ sticker), what criteria applied at the various national and regional wine shows – there was no tier or sector of the industry which could operate sustainably beyond the influence of the empowered mafia. It’s hardly surprising that they were as resistant as the ayatollahs to anything which threatened their hegemony.

In the first decade of the post-1994 liberation of the industry, KWV transformed from the statutory authority running the industry to merely another player, and the repressed creativity of those who had been marginalised began percolating to the surface. New vineyard sites were established, old vineyards acquired new prominence, the industrial side and the craft side discovered each other and began a low-key guerilla war, the former to prevent power slipping out of its grasp, the latter to assert itself and its points of difference.

Wines of South Africa (WoSA) became the battleground. Although WoSA is nominally there to represent the whole industry, it draws its funding from levies raised on exports. Since these are pro-rated on literage sold abroad, the bigger players contribute more than the often more high profile and newsworthy smaller producers. Accordingly, they insisted on the lion’s share of WoSA’s activities, particularly insofar as these included expenditure on junkets for foreign hacks. They didn’t really appreciate that the low-volume, high-priced offerings of the ‘rock star’ producers added significantly to South Africa’s international profile – albeit in less tangible way.

Serious international wine writers don’t want to spend 50% of their time in great big industrial wineries, looking at yet another tank farm or bottling line. However, the WoSA public relations team could never really show off the best of the edgy wine scene without falling foul of their board. They did the best they could under the circumstances – but, a little like asking Roger Federer to play left-handed with his right hand bound behind his back, the performance could never realise its full potential.

Looking around at Cape Wine 2015 – the bi-annual international wine show organised by WoSA – there is a definite sense of change in the air. From the ‘divided we stand, united we fall’ look-and-feel of a few years back, there’s an altogether greater sense of togetherness. Some of this may be attributable to the sheer logic of unity: the big players see the value in the contribution of the young guns, the more boutique producers recognise that their levy payments could never – on their own – fund the huge international crowd. The industry is doing well: since nothing succeeds like success. Much of the apparent unity and bonhomie is no doubt a result of the generally upbeat space producers finally find themselves occupying. (It has to be said that for many, profitability is still something of a mirage: however, South Africa is no longer the hard sell it used to be and the weak rand is doing its bit to change the arithmetic.)

If this is correct, it’s easy to understand why Australians pull together when the need arises, and why South Africans generally do the opposite. Australians pretty much know that they are performing to the best of their abilities. When you live in a meritocracy there is only one way to get to the top – and that’s by being the best. When you live in a society in which merit doesn’t count for anything, the only way to succeed is to jockey for position, to commit to whoever you think has the power of patronage, and do whatever is required to secure a sinecure.

Feudal societies function in this way – and they work fine (in the sense that they operate within the expectations of their citizens) as long as there is no basis for comparison. However, since we now inhabit a global world, meritocratic will outperform feudal every time. That’s why Australia made the most of the last commodities boom and we didn’t. We spent all our time fighting over an old carcass, instead of taking advantage of the perfect hunting conditions and re-stocking the larder. The fight over the levelness (or otherwise) of playing fields is about the marginal positions secured or lost in the battle for privilege. Once objective criteria no longer apply, you advance yourself by obtaining advantage – and hair-splitting is an inevitable part of that process. In truth, we spend so much time pacing up and down the playing fields and measuring the infinitesimal variations in the surface height that we never get to play the game.

There are no handouts in the wine industry. It doesn’t lend itself to black economic empowerment deals so it has been largely bypassed by the vultures. It is one of the few meritocratic games in town. This is either good news or bad news. It’s good for all of us if it serves as an example of what we can achieve without skewing a performance-based order, and without state interference. It could however be really bad news for the industry itself if its achievements lift its profile and make it a target for the ideologues: when you are surrounded by your own failures, you are disinclined to be generous about other people’s successes. DM

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