When the going gets tough, the tough get going—straight to the liquor store. And the not-so-tough are right behind them.
If there has been one consistent thing during this pandemic, it’s alcohol consumption. While curling up with a bottle of cabernet might not be the best coping mechanism, if you’re of drinking age, you’re free to self-medicate away.
But that has not been the case in South Africa for much of the pandemic: South Africa has twice banned booze, meaning all sales and consumption of alcohol were considered a crime. The first ban was put into place on March 27 and lifted on June 1. Without warning, a second complete prohibition was put in place on July 12, and lifted on Aug. 17.
Rightly or wrongly, those bans have had a devastating impact.
The idea was simple: If people don’t drink, people can’t get knee-walking, commode-hugging drunk, and that reduces the amount of alcohol-related injuries. No more drunk drivers. No more bar brawls. A reduction of domestic violence and child abuse. Who wouldn’t be on board with that?
Perhaps this was an easy decision for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, given the staggering number of coronavirus cases there, and the unhealthy relationship and history the country has with alcohol. For years, laborers were paid with leftover wine or any unsavory hooch laying around. Drinking your wages was an easy way into rampant alcoholism.
But was the cure worse than the disease? The impact of these extreme restrictions will be felt for years. More than 1 million jobs were affected, and the revenue loss is in the hundreds of millions. The economic partnership between South Africa and the European Union was fractured. More than 500 liquor stores were robbed, and the boom in illegal alcohol production spiraled out of control, with modern-day Al Capones seizing an opportunity to supply the thirsty masses. As the United States learned during our own decade-long Prohibition, where’s there a will, there’s a way.
Even with the ban lifted, restrictions remain. Alcohol can be consumed inside restaurants and bars, but only until 10 p.m. If the citizens of South Africa want to purchase libations to enjoy at home, they can do so—but liquor outlets can only be open Monday through Thursday, during daytime hours, and citizens are subject to a curfew.
Meanwhile, pineapple sales have gone through the roof. It’s an easy fruit to ferment and turn into alcohol in the privacy of one’s own bathroom. Home brewers are discovering all kinds of new ways to create their own happy hour.
But the police minister was having none of it. He enthusiastically and proudly promoted extreme methods of enforcement, proclaiming he’d destroy the infrastructure where alcohol is sold. He encouraged his police task force to use any measure of prosecution—including the beating to death of a man caught drinking alcohol in his own backyard.
The devastation doesn’t stop there. Mirroring the sentiments in this country, there is a fierce debate going on regarding the importance of lives versus livelihoods: Teetering on a catastrophic recession, with huge unemployment numbers, the South African wine industry has been on the verge of collapse. This breaks my heart.
Small, family-owned and family-operated wineries are facing the biggest risk of extinction. They are dependent on local consumption and tourism, both of which have been nonexistent. Many of them have limited access to exportation or distribution, and those that do are being impacted by trade agreements that require reciprocity.
What’s more is that a lot of these wineries are Black-owned. The idea that a Black person could own land, much less be a winemaker, was a concept that was unthinkable 30 years ago.
In 1997, Charles Back, of Fairview Winery, created the Fair Valley Workers Association. This was an amazing step toward equality: For the first time, Black workers had the opportunity to acquire land and make their own wines. In 1999, the country saw its first wine produced by a female Black winemaker, Carmen Stevens, who was just 27 years old at the time. Since then, more than 40 wineries have been established by Black entrepreneurs.
That’s South Africa for you. During the area’s 360 years of wine production, the country has proven time and again that you can knock her down, but she gets right back up. For every step back, South Africa becomes even more determined to take two steps forward. This is why I love this country and its wines so much: Not only do they have undeniable, unapologetic flavors and aromas that are unique and thought-provoking; the industry has always seized opportunities to modernize and advance. It is a powerful force and will not go quietly.
The good news is that we can help: The next time you’re out running your necessary and essential errands, pick up a bottle or two of South African wine. Explore different grapes and regions. See what chenin blanc from Paarl tastes like. Try a Rhone-inspired red blend from the Franschhoek area. Be daring, and open a bottle of the country’s signature wine from a grape called pinotage. Encourage your friends to find some South African wine, and have a virtual tasting.
While the United States doesn’t exactly have a healthy relationship with alcohol, either, at least this time when we drink South African wine, we can drink for a good cause. I think this calls for a lovely bottle of Graham Beck Brut Rose.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at email@example.com.