As South Africans raise a toast to the lifting of the alcohol ban, the industry remains under enormous pressure to produce, promote, trade and consume alcohol responsibly. But what needs to change in order to avoid future bans, and keep the prohibitionists at bay?
A collective sigh of relief reverberated throughout the country when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lifting of the alcohol ban under level two of the Covid-19 lockdown regulation.
Wine commentator Michael Fridjhon told WineLand the wine industry is not out of the woods yet. “We’re dealing with a prohibition-force in government, which will make local sales difficult in the future. Producers will have to look at alternative ways to sell wine.”
Covid-19 pandemic has again brought 31% of South Africans’ unhealthy relationship with alcohol into sharp relief. A third of the population who are drinkers, do so heavily and irresponsibly.
According to the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA), we are among the top five countries in the world with the highest consumption of absolute alcohol per drinker per year, the second highest category of harmful patterns of drinking and the highest category for heavy episodic drinkers. A total of 130 people die daily from alcohol-related causes.
In light of this, government’s concerns are not completely without merit. The industry must acknowledge the complex and multifaceted challenge of alcohol abuse in South Africa.
“We’re under a massive magnifying glass at the moment,” comments wine writer Emile Joubert. He warns wine producers to be extremely conscious of how they produce, advertise and trade their products, as another ban could be the final nail in the coffin for #SAWine
Ingrid Louw, CEO of Aware.org, says underage drinking, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), drink driving and walking, as well as binge drinking are particularly problematic. “Alcohol-related harm is a stark reality in our country and requires not only a collective consciousness around the issue, but a serious drive to develop a culture of responsible drinking and moderation in South Africa.” She feels this requires active education and awareness together with on-the-ground interventions.
To this end, Aware.org’s code of communications outlines various guidelines for producers to reduce the harmful use of alcohol and promote responsible consumption. Download it here.
After suffering severe losses from two alcohol bans, the South African liquor industry has signed a social compact with government to put particular focus and energy into ensuring responsible production, trade, advertising and consumption. Easier said than done, right?
It starts at the cellar
Attie Louw, owner and winemaker at Opstal Estate & Restaurant, says responsible consumption is engrained into the brand. “Our marketing policy and how we speak about our products has always been done in a responsible manner. It’s something we take great pride in.”
Instead of encouraging excessive consumption, Opstal shifts the focus to brand, prestige and exclusivity. “We don’t talk cheap and available.”
Thys Louw, proprietor of Diemersdal, maintains that what happens with alcohol sales outside of his cellar is beyond his control. “This is where supermarkets and wine shops must adhere to the regulation set out by government.” He feels he’s done his part for responsible trade by losing three trading days a week. At his tasting facility, he can’t blame anyone for ordering 30 cases of Sauvignon Blanc since “no-one knows when the next ban will be reinstated.”
But Thys doesn’t tolerate excessive alcohol consumption in his restaurant. “Diemersdal is in the fortunate position that most of our clients respect the brand and opt to rather enjoy and appreciate wine as opposed to consuming it irresponsibly.”
Responsible trade and consumption is also top of mind for David Sadie, owner and winemaker at David & Nadia Wines. “Regardless of Covid-19, we work exclusively on an allocation system through our newsletter, and opt to rather build relationships with clients and keep tastings and presentations intimate and focused.”
Turning crisis into opportunity, Gavin Dittmar, CEO of Meridian Wine Merchants, says the company is working on a responsible drinking app to encourage a more accountable drinking culture in South Africa. “This has been presented at industry level and we hope to get the support of industry and government for this initiative.”
Manage your marketing
After the ban was lifted, it didn’t take long for memes and posts encouraging irresponsible consumption to appear on social media (see left). Industry bodies who understand the sensitivity in negotiations with government shudder every time someone decides to cry wolf and stir unfounded rumours of more alcohol bans to incite mass panic buying.
These are forms of irresponsible alcohol promotion, and damaging to the image of South African wine. It threatens to undo all the hard work and interventions industry has put in with its dealings and negotiations with government.
Emile says wine is often marketed alongside glamour and lifestyle (called ‘badge’ drinking). That’s because categories offering a so-called social benefit are typically able to leverage price to their advantage and enjoy higher levels of commitment. If wine is able to evoke an enviable badge, it must be capable of promoting desirable and responsible behaviours too.
“How long before prohibitionists start using these forms of ‘badge-promotion’ against us, and condemning it as irresponsible marketing?” Emile asks. “How long do we allow irresponsible behaviour to continue before we’re forced to adapt?”
Emile, who also operates his own public relations company, Mediavision, says he advises his clients against lifestyle marketing. “I’m strict with my clients regarding this. I refuse to do any badge marketing when it comes to wine. Wine marketers should rather focus on things like wine and food, the history and cultural nature of the farm, the terroir and the people behind the wine.”
He says the industry often still surrenders to the temptation of extravagant marketing, and that so-called social media influencers are guilty of this. “In light of what’s been happening recently, we need to establish more specific guidelines in terms of responsible marketing before we get caught out.”
Many people feel South Africa’s societal problems are unfairly thrown at the wine industry’s doorstep. “Because of our history, the wine industry has frequently served as the punching bag for the problems within the country’s agricultural sector,” says Attie.
He feels the wine industry’s been dealt a poor hand from the start, but stresses that the root of the problem lies with regulation. “Regulation, not only in terms of law enforcement, but also from an industry point of view, must be more strictly implemented.”
Michael reiterates this. “Government needs to understand that the failure – drinking and trauma hotspots – is also a failure of policing. You don’t ban motor vehicles because there are motor accidents. You get on with policing. You change traffic regulations. You go zero tolerance with drinking and driving. You put cops out on the road.”
“We have an unbelievably strict regulation already, it’s just not enforced. Getting the industry to work with government where the responsibility shifts from the industry to the police is a crucial part of this – we simply cannot ignore it.”
With irresponsible alcohol consumption, the rooiproppie (red cap) issue inevitably pops up. Cheap plonk (sometimes sold for as little as R10 a litre) in plastic containers with red caps has a long and painful history in this country.
It’s mainly consumed in vast quantities by the poor and destitute seeking relief from their daily frustrations. The collateral damage has been the devastating erosion of dignity and self-respect among these communities.
Red caps and wine sold in plastic containers make up roughly 42 million litres of domestic sales in South Africa (roughly 5% of the total amount of wine produced in South Africa), a product Emile refers to as “irresponsible and dangerous.”
Michael says the industry is rife with wine sold at R20 per litre in plastic containers, especially in townships and poorer communities. “Somebody is selling that, and it’s much more serious than fine wine being sold in excessive volumes. The industry must take some form of responsibility for this surplus disposal.”
“We must take a stand,” says Attie. “This is not helping anyone; it’s becoming a moral issue. How is this product doing anyone any good? How is it helping communities? It isn’t.”
There’s an argument that it’s not up to producers and industry to decide whether certain products are sold or not. However, Attie believes the industry must take a stand to promote responsible usage. “Red caps aren’t in line with our values. We must clamp down on this.”
Emile says red caps have wreaked havoc on the South African wine industry, causing irreversible damage not only to the health of our people, but also the industry’s image.
“The practice is hamstringing our quest to get South African wine into a premium category, where image and class is reflected through better pricing, hopefully leading to the much-needed economic growth the industry is hoping for.”
Emile calls for industry bodies to speak out against the producers of red caps and similar products being sold in plastic containers.
For an industry big on self-regulation, we have to take a long, hard look at our products. The first step for producers guilty of producing rooiproppie products, would be to admit that they’re contributing to the problem. Emile says solutions like innovative packaging could raise the prices of these products and stem the flow of irresponsible alcohol use.
Charl du Plessis, CEO of Orange River Cellars – a producer of rooiproppie or PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) wine products – admits that it does contribute to various social ills, and has even considered removing it from production altogether. “But to cut 30% of our production during a very difficult time doesn’t make economic sense right now.”
He says ORC is simply catering to the consumers’ need. “If redcaps are removed from the market, something else will come along to take its place.”
He says the issue isn’t exclusive to redcaps. “What about beer quarts? “It can be argued that in terms of volume, quarts is an even bigger part of the problem. If PET must be removed from the market, so too must quarts.”
In terms of creating innovative packaging to increase price points on these products, Charl isn’t convinced. “Alcoholic products reach a certain ‘tipping point’ where illicit trade and homebrew takes over when the price of alcoholic products become too high. We’ve seen it happen with tobacco during the lockdown.”
Industry must take the lead
Michael says that while the alcohol ban solved one problem for government, it created many more. “What we’ve learnt is that the alcohol industry will always be trading under an imminent threat of alcohol bans, limited trading hours, communication restrictions as well as rules around packaging volumes.”
Before we soothe ourselves with the notion that it isn’t the role of the industry to solve the world’s problems; that people will do whatever they feel like doing, let’s also consider the inconvenient truths. “Government doesn’t have the necessary resources or inclination to properly police all the social ills associated with alcohol, despite the generous contribution the industry makes to state coffers.”
“The pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges for all of us,” says Ingrid. “It’s our responsibility to act responsibly and ensure a safer nation, but it requires collaboration between all stakeholders.”
Aware.org’s guidelines for responsible trade
- No visible direct discounting in % or R-value, on any platform and/or within any off-consumption premises.
No “buy three, get one free” promotions. This is seen as a temporary arrangement.
Offering free delivery and/or a discount on delivery is an acceptable practice in the world of ecommerce.
Aware.org’s guidelines for responsible advertising
Generally, adverts should not depict images that will increase the spread of the virus (adhering to Aware guidelines).
New out-of-home messaging must be Covid-19 sensitive.
- Covid-19 sensitive messages includes images that adhere to social distancing guidelines, hygiene practices, staying at home and masks (where applicable).