“Transformation” is a word uttered more frequently in SA than anywhere else in the world. This is as it should be: ours was a society with greater visible need for change than most. From the mid-1990s, transformation became the buzzword, a definition, a justification, an explanation, an excuse for the political accommodation out of which post-apartheid SA emerged. By its very nature, it describes a process rather than a revolution, an act of becoming rather than a state of existence.

Some changes were easy enough to implement; legislation could deal with the discriminatory statutes. But culture, social mores and world views are not as easily moulded. Nor is it really possible to make up for time elapsed, the lived lives lost.

Even allowing for the value of nudging not thumping, the Cape wine industry was slow to embrace change. The pressures seemed less immediate, the policies of the national government less intrusive in the southern redoubt. There was also a useful obstacle that served to make a virtue of procrastination: there’s not enough fat in grape growing and wine production to render empowerment deals appealing to the favoured few. Who wants to own a farm, which, if the accounting were up to date, might already need life support?

So changes in vineyard and winery ownership have been slow and less visible than in other industries, conveying the impression that, in the Cape winelands at least, transformation is not an imperative. While there is some truth to this, it would be unfair to think that nothing was being done. There has been a huge change in the employment profile of the major corporates and very visible progress in the commercial and winemaking teams of a number of mid-size producers.

Transformation is also evident beyond the production sector, most obviously at the interface of distribution and sales. Diners-out will have noticed the effect of this at the level of wine service. Wine waiters have largely been replaced by people who have received (and are usually still receiving) training as sommeliers. Not only is the service significantly more professional than 10 years ago, but the knowledge on offer, and the quality of the recommendations, now meets more exacting standards.

This is no mere fluke: there are several organisations actively engaged in upgrading wine service. Many of the trainee sommeliers are studying wine as well as wine service. Their qualifications include several Cape Wine Academy or Wine & Spirits Education Trust international courses. The latter has just announced a bursary programme for members of the Black Cellar Club (Blacc), an organisation that has been active in building professional capacity in the industry.

The extent to which things had changed appeared most visible to me — both in terms of demographics and competence — at the annual wine judging academy I direct under the auspices of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. The programme has been running for 15 years. It can accommodate only 18 students a year. The academic expectations are rigorous — an Angie Motshekga matric certificate alone won’t cut it. Students who lack technical understanding and wide tasting experience are doomed to flounder.

Ten years ago only a handful of students of all races showed a proper grasp of the requirements. This year about 80% of the class managed comfortably; a third of their number was black. Several achieved distinctions. The most important single driver of this change has been the Cape Winemakers Guild’s Protegé Programme. Over the past decade these trainee black winemakers have been working in the Cape’s best cellars. They have been mentored by winemakers who themselves have a broader and deeper knowledge than the generation whose shoes they have filled.

If this is what can be achieved by the wine industry — in terms of building competencies — in the three decades since our first democratic elections, we should allow ourselves a little optimism. The future of SA does not have to be determined by thugs, thieves and wannabe feudal lords. 

This column first appeared in Business Day. 

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