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‘Brainwashed with booze: my grandmother still remembers’

SA officially has some of the heaviest drinkers in the world and it’s no secret why, argues Heinrich Bothman

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In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic there has been increasing discussions about the role of the alcohol industry social responsibility. Now Heinrich Bothman, a certified Cape Sommelier, wine evaluator and judge weighs in on the matter.

As South Africans are getting used to (legally!) buying alcohol again, the industry’s obligation towards changing behaviour with responsible production, promotion, trade and consumption is top of mind. Suddenly, everyone’s buzzing again about the continued effects of the once-forgotten tot system in which employers once paid their labourers with cheap wine.

It’s a dreaded, man-made system. Not-so-proudly South African too. And as we get back to buying liquor according to the new covid-19 regulations, we also have to confront uneasy and uncomfortable questions about the link between the tot system and alcohol abuse today.

Heinrich Bothman, a certified Cape Sommelier, wine evaluator and judge. Photo: Supplied

Growing up on the very low income spectrum of South Africa’s retrogressive Gini Coefficient, I too did not realise what is normal or abnormal in a farming community where we have been conditioned to think otherwise. Looking back, I can honestly say we have been brainwashed with booze.

In one of my previous Food For Mzansi columns, I joked about a drunken guy who could barely stand on all fours on a late Friday afternoon after knocking off from work at a wine farm three to four hours earlier. That same man that was ever-so-quiet in the rest of the week suddenly had the confidence to speak his mind and share his political views of his conditioned lifestyle. 

A lot has happened since I’ve written this widely-shared opinion piece. We’re still in the wake of a pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement gained international momentum and, of course, our own government seems to have misappropriated covid-19 relief money. It is most depressing, I agree.

Children of the 1940s

Recently, my family and I celebrated an unannounced, or dare I say an unofficial triumph, of my grandmother turning 80, just a week before Women’s Day. The average age of her friends are 84! And from my interactions with them, I am convinced that these children of the 1940s are not only old school, but inquisitive.

Not a moment goes by without one of them probing for personal information, such as who ones parents are or the nature of one’s job. They are a polite bunch, though, and really keen on actually hearing what you have to say. Conversations are frequently interrupted with an empathic “uhmm” and “aaah!” and the occasional nod.

Their interests are sparked, though, when they hear that I come from the wine industry “life”. At this moment, they usually peer through their vintage frames as if to take a glance into my vulnerable soul. Having grown up in a time whereby farm labourers received liquor as part of their wage, they are understandably concerned about my career in the wine industry. They do not easily volunteer information about this time, but there can be no doubt that this little bit of information left a bad taste on their pallets from years and years of oppression.

(Editor’s note: Health-e News earlier reported that the first evidence of a type of “dop” system being introduced in the Western Cape was recorded in 1658 by the Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck who described how they gave liquor and tobacco to slave children to coax them into submission. Although it was formally banned in the 1960’s the practice continued until well after the end of apartheid.)

South Africa has some of the heaviest drinkers in the world and it’s no secret why. But it is time to take greater action and ownership for mistakes made in the past.

So, being rather inquisitive myself, I asked about my grandmother and her friends about the dop system, rather naively thinking that it was only “a Friday after work thing.” I was not ready for their living memories of a culture of drinking still firmly embedded in. my community. In fact, I was shocked and rather dismayed.

One of them, aunty Rose, recalled a not-too-distant time where the elderly worked hard winters and endured various hardships to earn an honest living. In cold winters, they were often fed with wine to start a gruelling morning and still expected to be productive through to lunch. After lunch, some more booze was served to get the team fired up, and it ended with the last supper. On the menu? Booze, of course. This was a daily occurrence.

Some things can’t change overnight…

To be honest, hearing this from loved ones made me frustrated, almost to the point of disliking my own job despite my success as a certified Cape Sommelier, wine evaluator and judge. Thankfully, my job today differs tremendously from aunty Rose’s story and I had the chance to explain it in much detail to her.

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I agree that some things, however, cannot change overnight or irrevocably change the future, but we do have a choice. A lot of the oppression currently being felt by the poorest of the poor in farming communities are locked up in how they are still treated. I see how some people raise their eyebrows when I say, “This is where I grew up. This has been my parents’ home for the last 20 years. Yes, they live in this dangerous area.”

Life is all about learning from the past and not living in it, I guess. I have been impressed by the wine industry body Vinpro who acknowledges that this reality needs dire attention. South Africa officially has some of the heaviest drinkers in the world and it’s no secret why. But it is time to take greater action and ownership for mistakes made in the past, and to stop treating certain demographics with prejudice. After all, “they” have the buying power of volume.

  • Heinrich Bothman is a certified Cape Sommelier, wine evaluator and judge weighs in on the matter. He is known as South Africa’s #WineFARMacist.
Heinrich Bothman
Heinrich Bothman
Heinrich Bothman is a certified Cape Sommelier, wine evaluator and judge. He has a decade’s experience in the wine industry. Heinrich studied Business of Wine at the Graduate School of Business of the University of Cape Town and also obtained his international judging qualification from Stellenbosch University.
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