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Wine Industry Breaking Racial Barriers in South Africa


South Africa's wine industry has long been regarded as one of the last preserves of Afrikaner privilege and paternalism. But more than a decade after the end of Apartheid, a sudden proliferation of black-owned ventures has highlighted the changing face of South Africa. One such venture is M'Hudi, a story of Africa today and into the future.

Its early afternoon at M'Hudi, a small vineyard in the scenic Western Cape of South Africa. The wine being poured is a Chenin Blanc. The pourer is Tesliso Rangaka.

The 31-year-old left his life as an advertising copywriter near Johannesburg in 2003 to help his mother and father Oupa and Malmsie, live their dream: to move from the bustle of the city to the country life of a farm in the hills in this idyllic community.

They are professionals: Malmsie is a clinical psychologist and Oupa was a principal at Vista University in Soweto. But until two years ago they never drank wine, much less harvested it. This is not an industry where many black Africans have made inroads.

Oupa Rangaka talks about the struggles of being a black owner in a white-dominated industry.

"The Western Cape has not had black people who are not workers for a long time … so it is understandable that white people in the Western Cape do not know what to make of us," he said. "We look like their workers, but we are not. We do not behave like them and we do not talk like them."

The name M'Hudi is derived from a Setswana word meaning "harvester". But, probe deeper in this meaning and you will find a story that parallels this family's struggle in a white-dominated industry.

The heroine of this African story is M'Hudi who flees her war-torn village in search of a new life. Along her journey she encounters a completely different culture. She is a stranger in a strange land who eventually finds friends and fosters life-long relationships. Her story is one of courage and the relentless pursuit of a dream.

Like the character M'Hudi, this family is pursuing their dream against all odds.

With no previous farming and winemaking experience, the Rangaka family pressed ahead and turned this so-called derelict farm with a ramshackle farmhouse and shed, and broken-down equipment into a harvest of dreams.

They launched three wines in November and forged an important friendship: The Grier family of the winery Villiera.

"The Grier family has delivered the evidence to us that it is not Black-White anymore in South Africa," said Mr. Rangaka. "It is very slowly becoming a class thing. It slowly becoming a whether or not I like you thing, regardless of which side of the color background you come from."

It is really the story of the changing face of South Africa. And one Malmsie Rangaka says M'Hudi Wines draws inspiration from.

"We do develop friendships, which do cut across races that are sometimes even closer than friendships with our own people, because we are all starting from scratch in a sense," added Mrs. Rangaka.

It is clear that the Grier family has played a key role in bringing the grapes from the vine to the table. Tseliso developed a close relationship with Simon Grier who he says advised him on producing the best Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinotage. The advice later turned in to a formal business partnership.

"Once we got talking about what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go, I did inform him that our plan was to ultimately, eventually one day make some wine," noted Tesliso Rangaka. "And he said, 'yeah, first learn about the vineyards. Know everything, then all the processes before you can get there'. Then as he got to know us better he found out that we actually needed to convert the grapes into wine to add value much quicker than he had thought, so we had to fast-track the process."

Two years after knowing nothing about wine, Tseliso Rangaka now writes articles regularly about wine for an industry web site. His training with the Villiera winery is well-rounded: from the vineyard to the wine cellar, he is learning the trade from start to finish.

According to the Black Vintners' Alliance of South Africa, there are more than 20 black-owned vineyards today.

Last year the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Affairs announced that it would like 30 percent of all agricultural land to be owned by Blacks and Coloreds by 2014. As a result, many Afrikaners are breaking up their estates and selling a portion of the land to their employees.

While this seems like a move in the right direction in this post-apartheid era, there is a catch. Few if any, of the new ventures have turned a profit. This is mostly due to the fact that employee-owned vineyards took on massive debt to get started, and large repayments have made it impossible for them either to take money out of their ventures or to reinvest.

Malmsie Rangaka also says that the relationships between Black owners and their partners are not always advantageous.

"The relationships are disadvantaging to them most of the time. There is a lot of talk that they are getting a raw deal … Sometimes they just feel they are the marketing side of their relationship and sometimes they feel that they are putting so much into this relationship that, but they are not participating in the activities as in winemaking, as in viticulture," she explained.

It is clear that in the future the Rangakas wish to become even more involved in the viticultural, winemaking, and marketing aspects, to grow the M'Hudi brand. They are also taking on the responsibility of offering similar opportunities to other Black owners, but for now they are slowly harvesting their dreams.

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