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Wine Industry Continues to Transform in Post-Apartheid South Africa - 2004-04-26

In the 10 years since the end of apartheid, South Africa's wine industry has begun to build a good international reputation, and wine has become one of the country's flagship products. But the wine business is still one of the least integrated in the country. Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from the town of Stellenbosch, in South Africa's wine heartland.

"This is the basket press we are using. We use this just to separate the skins and the wine, so we just pour it in here," said winemaker Nontsikilelo Biyela, who is showing a visitor how they do things at the Stellekaya Winery. A recent graduate of Stellenbosch University, she has just finished pressing her first harvest as a winemaker. Her wine is downstairs, fermenting in French oak barrels.

Ms. Biyela is one of the few black winemakers in South Africa. The wine industry worldwide is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. That is especially true here, where less than one percent of the industry is black-owned. Ms. Biyela says 10 years after the end of apartheid, a big chunk of the South African wine industry is still resistant to change.

"I can say at the moment, it is difficult to get in if you are black," she said. "Okay, even though there is affirmative action, now they need women on board, they need blacks on board. But it is like you get in different places, but in some, they are still trying to block."

The South African Wine Industry Trust, or SAWIT, is a partnership between government and industry aimed at what South Africans call the transformation of the wine business. SAWIT sponsored Ms. Biyela's university education under a program that has, to date, produced 10 young black winemakers.

SAWIT director Gavin Pieterse says the South African wine industry has traditionally been hostile to blacks.

"It is one sector that has enormous baggage. The old primary production practices and the way people produced the product under apartheid has left a legacy of disempowerment second to none," he said. "It is not by accident that we have the incredibly high levels of functional illiteracy among farm workers [and] alcohol abuse. So over and above the skewed ownership patterns, from a racial point of view, there's that particular legacy."

That legacy of colonialism and white domination lives on in the South African wine industry. In the heart of the South African wine-making region, Stellenbosch University offers the only Bachelor of Science program in grape growing winemaking on the African continent.

But even now, 10 years after the end of apartheid, there are few blacks in the program. Nontsikilelo Biyela came to Stellenbosch in 1999.

"Okay, I had not stayed with white people before. I can say for starters, my first day, it was a nightmare," she said. "Because I came in and I am looking around, there were no black people around. You only see one there, and you see one there. So it was, like, a nightmare."

That first year, all of her classes were conducted in Afrikaans, a language she does not speak. But she got tutoring, and after a while the university agreed to start providing courses in English. It was hard work, but she has no regrets.

"It was worth it. More than saying worth it. It was really worth it," she said. "Because here I am now, being a winemaker."

And Ms. Biyela has a passion for making wine. That is why her boss at Stellekaya, Dave Lello, has no regrets about hiring her, even though she is still young and inexperienced.

"She was a great find," he said. "And although it's only her first season, she's only been here three or four months, we know that she has going to give us a lot back for the opportunity we're giving her."

The driving force behind the Stellenbosch empowerment program is Jabulani Ntshangase, the chief executive of the only fully black-owned winery in the country. He learned to love wine while working at a wine shop in New York 20 years ago. He has personally recruited and mentored the young black students in the Stellenbosch program, and he even bought a house for them to live in.

He says he got the idea while thinking about what connoisseurs look for in a wine. "It is the balance, to see if the wines are well balanced.... so it was just based from that that I started to take a look at our South African wine industry, as an industry itself," he said. "I found what was very obvious, that it wasn't balanced. It needed a bit of color."

Young, black Stellenbosch graduates like Ms. Biyela are just part of the plan to integrate South Africa's wine industry. The South African Wine Industry Trust wants to get blacks involved in the wine business at all levels - from the ownership of vineyards to the shops the bottles are eventually sold in.

That argument has certainly resonated with Ms. Biyela's employer, Dave Lello. He wants his winery to be firmly grounded in the New South Africa.

"There are two approaches you can take in South Africa," he said. "You can either say I was privileged, and I hang onto that privilege as long as I can or else you say that the new South Africa presents a great opportunity, I think far more than we have had in the last 100 years, and you embrace it."

One problem that has arisen in the transformation of other South African industries, such as the mining sector, has also cropped up in the wine business. Some wineries have produced what Mr. Pieterse calls pseudo-empowerment deals that spin off a percentage of shares to workers or black investors, but leave control of the business still firmly in white hands.

The wine industry is in the process of drafting a black-empowerment charter that will govern some of the trickier issues and help guide the industry into the future.

In the meantime, the young black students and graduates of Stellenbosch University are trying to change the South African wine business from the inside.