Jean Barker

SA's wine crisis - exported

2012-11-16 07:45

Jean Barker

Though Nelson Mandela appears on inspirational billboards all over LA, you only tend to hear news from South Africa when it involves sports, or violence.

I guess this focus can be blamed on a "darkest Africa", "Zimbabwe", "Rwanda", "you're all gonna die" mentality that's deeply ingrained in Americans, perhaps because America's popular history (like that of most western nations) is all about justifying past genocide as some kind of glorious act of self-determination and Judeo-Christian right to lebensraum. Simply put, the sound of drums makes them all nervous, because they secretly fear that they have it coming.

So yes, we heard about the mine protests. Freak-out! What was interesting was that combined with the assumption that South Africa was going up in flames at any second came a genuine need to know why the protests were happening. "Wages are shitty", I explained, hoping the whole thing would just go away. It didn't. An American friend looked up the number, and commented that pay was insanely low. I felt too ashamed to tell him that mine workers already earn well above minimum wage.

Not morally acceptable

The Winelands protests were barely noticed amid all the election fever here. I only even heard about it because I have a South African friend with farming relatives. My first reaction was fear. Was this Zimbabwe II? Yes, I know. I thought that. I'm sorry...

Then I looked into it and discovered just how low the Winelands' workers' wages are. It was hard to believe. R70 a day? The price of a hamburger? And they're only demanding R150 a day for labour in a luxury goods industry? Really? The reminder that abuse like this is still widespread made me sick to my stomach. I wasn't surprised to learn, while listening to late night BBC coverage on NPR, about a call for an international boycott of SA wines not carrying some sort of "fair trade" sticker.

I also began to remember that I personally know people who do pay their workers less than they could, who argue that "...we pay more than they asked" or "...our neighbours gave her to us and asked us not to pay her more than they did".

That's dangerously damn close to claiming workers should be grateful they aren't slaves. Middle class South Africa's shame lies in how people, liberal or conservative, often feel having servants is an entitlement, and a form of charity towards those who work the jobs. It's not normal, folks, and it's definitely not morally acceptable!

France, Spain, Italy and even Chile (thanks to a recent wage rise following strikes) all compete on the international market with their wines, and also pay a living wage. And the USA? The hourly wage in California is the same as a full day's wage in South Africa.

I can't help wondering is whether it's not viable to simply push up the base sales price of South African wine, or tax it more. I know that a bottle that costs R70 in South Africa is of equivalent quality to one that costs R120 here. So how about if that bottle cost R75? Surely even a tax that small, spent on farm workers' accommodation, services and wages, would go a long way when you consider all the bottles of wine that get sold every year.

Very little to live on

Whatever has to be done, R70 a day and a hovel on the farm is not - and never has been - okay. People need hope, and subsistence living provides none. I was horrified to read Agri-SA's outdated and, frankly, inhuman summary of the situation. It was nothing more than a self-satisfied restating of the old apartheid-era "They're burning their own schools!"-type comment.

Yes, I know R70 a day (about $10) goes a lot further in SA than it does in the USA, but it's still only about $20 spending-power-wise. Even with your accommodation provided, it's very little to live on beyond the day-to-day, and even less when spread over a family. I think renegotiating should have happened a long time ago. People who say "they're burning their own livelihood" may not understand how angry people are, or what it's like to have so little to lose.

As South Africans, we stand or fall together. Even if Agri-SA chooses not to care about people's lives in favour of some theoretical "bigger picture", an international boycott of SA wine would be a disaster for them and their economic plans. It should never have come to this, and I hope other luxury industries learn a lesson from the outcry.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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