Cape Crusaders

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Related tags: South africa, South african wine

I first visited the townships that surround Cape Town airport eight years ago. On the whole things look slightly better now than then - there are...

I first visited the townships that surround Cape Town airport eight years ago. On the whole things look slightly better now than then - there are more shops and facilities for the inhabitants. And more lifestyle advertising has ventured in.

However, there is still major poverty - tiny apartments with six or so families living inside, and sprawling shanty towns on the outskirts of the townships, whose population is apparently being topped up daily by Zimbabweans fleeing the regime of Robert Mugabe. So it is not really an environment where one would expect to hear a story about wine entrepreneurship and increasing wine sales.

But wine really is one of the big stories of the moment, with co-operatives being managed or financially backed by black Africans, selling growing quantities of wines to shebeen bars and new café/wine bars in the townships.

The background to this story is the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) project set up by the South African government in 1998. Its laudable aim is to get black Africans into ownership and management of business in South Africa in a sustainable and economically viable way. The first target for the project is to have 35 per cent of business in the country under black ownership by 2014.

Wine, however, is not pulling its weight in this regard. Only one per cent of South Africa's wineries are black-owned. But modern South Africa is showing a great desire for wine from the black African community, be that in the townships or the burgeoning affluent middle classes.

One example is Sibeko wine, which is 51 per cent owned by Thembi Tobie. She has unveiled the Cape Concert range, which has pinotage, rosé and chenin blanc varietals. The rosé is particularly sweet and Thembi says that is designed to suit the palate of these new consumers.

"I don't necessarily like rosé that sweet, but in general black people like sweeter wines and so we have produced the wine to fit in with that," she says. "All our wines are aimed to be easy-drinking and fruity."

As far as she is concerned, the winds of change are blowing: "The industry is too pale and male and we all want to change that! There are so many opportunities in the wine industry."

Arguably the best example of this is Thandi. The co-operative, which is part-owned by Paul Cluver wines, started out as a fruit farming company before the BEE initiative was set up. Thandi wines were some of the first official fairtrade wines to hit the market and have secured several listings in export markets, including the UK - proving that this kind of partnership can work in the wine industry.

There have been criticisms of some BEE wine projects, particularly in the British press. Su Birch of Wines of South Africa believes these are unfair and stresses the BEE is not just about simple enforcement of ownership. "It is about implementing social improvement programmes. It makes you ask, is there a transfer of worker skills? Am I bringing people up through the ranks of the company? Am I making a difference to people's lives?"

There is always cynicism about projects such as these. However, having visited three or four projects, you cannot help but be enthused by what you see. Possibly more importantly, what BEE appears to have done is ensured that every winery enforces equality of worker rights - and surely that is much of what being a fairtrade supplier is about.

Do American or Australian wineries have such impressively stringent worker rights legislation? It is highly unlikely. For that, the South African wine industry has to be applauded.

Related topics: Wine

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