Bubbling to the Surface: South African Wine and its Ties to the Past

By Emily Ullmann


The Globalist trip South Africa began with a winery and vineyard tour. Though this might, in part, reflect college student priorities, it seems an appropriate way to begin a trip to this country. The wine industry represents the nation’s past, present, and future. The first vineyards were founded in 1654, only two years after the establishment of the first European settlement. In year seven of the colony, the settlers produced the first wine.

During the past 350 years, the country’s famous winery region along the Western Cape has developed into one of the best in the world. The industry continues to grow in profit and in international prestige, with wines from South Africa winning awards and recognition from all over. Yet this success is just the latest stage in the nation’s complex relationship with the beverage.

Vineyards have largely been own by white families, many with Dutch roots that dig deep into South Africa’s past. These vineyards are generally worked by non-white laborers who have traditionally lived with their families on the vineyards. What was slavery until 1834 became a system that was almost feudal in nature, with laborers tied to the land. Isolated in these mountainous rural regions and trapped by the economic limitations of apartheid, they were largely dependent on the owners of the vineyards.

Partially due to the nature of this labor situation and partially due to the international image crisis South Africa faced during apartheid, many countries boycotted South African goods, including wine, which had a serious effect on the growth of the industry. Although the end of apartheid brought an end to these boycotts, the wine industry continues to highlight South Africa’s struggles. Recently, President Jacob Zuma came under fire for serving Moët, instead of South African sparkling wine at his inauguration dinner. This PR oversight was only made worse by the fact that Obama served South African sparkling wine at his own inaugural dinner. These tensions often seem tangible, bubbling beneath the surface of the some of the vineyards we’ve visited.

As is the case with so much else in South Africa, the inescapable past of apartheid is reflected in a variety of efforts to overcome it. The owner of Soms Delta, a vineyard we visited in Franfhooek, has taken on the challenge of using his vineyard for social justice, building betters homes for his workers, creating after-school programs and day cares for their children,and establishing a economic system that makes the vineyard a sort of cooperative. Yet, the predominantly white clientele–many of whom were South Africans–seems to reflect the fact that change cannot and will not happen overnight and centuries of racial oppression cannot be wiped away with forgiveness.