WorldWine Blog


Social unrest in South Africa: Boycott as boycott can?

It was one of those moments in which, for a second, I wouldn't trust my eyes. "Will you boycott South African wine?" said the question of an online poll, a question which seemed at least surprising, if not irritating. This all the more so as a quick check on the date and the kind of publication revealed: No, this was no article written in the late 1970ies or 1980ies and no, this was no publication edited by some incorrigible Apartheid hardliners whom you could suspect to be interested in damaging the country which had slipped from their control some 20 years ago. Instead, the question was very recently put forward by the online edition of The Guardian, a publication which I had always supposed to be on the more intelligent side of mankind.

The international boycott against the Apartheid regime was very efficient and in the end accelerated or even provoked the political change. But an inflationary use of the old slogans could in the end damage the black majority. (photo: E. Supp)

Well, The Guardian did not only ask the question, it also "informed" its readers about the fact that some not further defined "agricultural union leaders in South Africa" had asked for a radical increase of farm labourers' wages and summoned international consumers to boycott South African wines, grapes and Granny Smith apples. Not more! And not less! And yes, the question was not asked in some sort of cautious, reserved manner, like "Would you possibly boycott ...?" or "Do you believe one should boycott ...?", but with a clearly imperative connotation: "Will you boycott ...?", implying and assuming that there was anything like a sopoooooooooooooid justification for such a boycott.

The result was predictable: 59 % of the Guardian readers voted "yes", they would boycott, and only 41 % thought they would not. Now it is certainly futile to discuss about the motives which made the Guardian readers vote in favor of a boycott and if such a non-representative poll does not rather create a public opinion than reproduce it - a fault which seems inherent to many ad-hoc-polls of printed and online media.

A dirty war

The point which instead really bothers me is the fact that this Guardian poll echoes a request that has recently been forwarded by some representative of the African National Congress, the governing party in South Africa. It is no big secret that I have never been among the uncritical claqueurs of South Africa or its wine producers. And this is as much true today as it was 35 years ago when I dissected the Apartheid regime with my cameras - with the result of not being allowed back into the country for some 16 years.

But a goverment or ruling party which calls for a boycott of the products of their own country? Well, this really was something new to me. Could you immagine Angela Merkel to ask the world not to buy Volkswagen cars any more. Or Obama to call for a boycott of Apple's iPhones? Or Cameron to no longer trade at the London Stock Exchange? Certainly not, but the fact itself gives you an idea of how dirty the war is which at present wages in South Africa.

It certainly is a war in which both sides are playing with marked cards - the die hards in the ANC camp as well as some of the nearly exclusively white farmers on the other. A war which most certainly threatens the fragile economy of the country AND the black majority which, 20 years or so after the end of Apartheid is still waiting for the fullfillment of at least a certain part of their dreams. It is a conflict which still is extremely complex and multi-faceted, even if at least the wine industry seems having tackled it with its recent WIETA initiative.

Farm workers on Welgemeend winery in the Paarl area. (photo: E. Supp)

A boycott, if it works, is an extremely powerful political tool. Just like the boycott which forced the Apartheid regime out of office. Like the boycott against Iran and North Corea or the one against Libya which apparently has worked very well either. But it is a weapon which remains sharp only as long as you don't make an inflationary use of it. Because then it tarnishes, it looses its explosive power. Then the question "Will you boycott South African wines?" becomes as incisive and drastic as "Will the sun shine in Cape Town tomorrow?".

Believe what ever you want when it comes to judging the social situation of black farm workers in South Africa, and I personally am certainly more on the critical side. BUT! Again a but. The social situation of black farm workers in South Africa is by no means comparable to the situation under Apartheid. And, believe me, I have had my share of Apartheid and think I know what I am talking about. And this is why that social situation does neither need nor deserve the same political reaction as Apartheid. Rather should we support the ethical initiatives of the wine industry itself and push for improvements of standards, even of legal standards such as the official minimum wages defined by the black government. If such changements come true the black population of South Africa might really come closer to the fullfillment of some of their dreams, one day.

Those who call for a boycott of South African products in the given, certainly not very positive situation, are probably the same who compare any not truly democratic government in the world with the German Nazis and who, by forwarding such comparisons terribly relativize the real dimensions of the holocaust.

Dear collegues of The Guardian: criticism is good and welcome but please don't get carried away and keep a sense of proportion. If you throw the baby out with the bath water you mustn't be too surprised if you must bury it afterwards.

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You should also read:

Unrest in SA wine country
South Africa's exports rise
South Africa's export booms
South Africa "alla grande"

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