Collaborating with the enemy: How can the wine industry get Government to listen?

Thursday, 26 May, 2022
Petri de Beer
As the wine industry, how can we get the government to hear us and collaborate with us?

There are five different representative organisations for commercial agriculture representing roughly 50% of agricultural producers in South Africa. Agri SA alone represents 37% of farmers. The wine industry is even more organised, with Vinpro representing more than 2 500 wine producers. Yet, for such a highly organised industry that directly contributes 2,53% to GDP, we are getting a cold shoulder from the powers that be.

So how do we come in from the cold? How do we make them listen?

How to get the government to listen

Make ourselves heard

I want to use two infamous examples. Try not to let your eyes roll back all the way in your head. Hear me out.

Example one: The EFF is only 9 years old and yet they have 11% of the vote with less than 1 million registered party members.  

Example two: America's National Rifle Association (NRA) is negatively viewed by most Americans and only represents 5,5% of gun owners. Roughly 4 million out of the 72 million members are reportedly firearms owners.

How is it that these two relatively small organisations have such disproportionate sway and influence on policy in their respective countries?

Firstly, they have a clear, concise message. Secondly, they are relentless: They understand that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. It doesn't matter what the actual numbers are – just show up every single time and make sure you're noticed.

This way, in the eyes of the governing powers, you seem to be a lot more prevalent than you actually are. Boots on the ground matter, not a silent majority or membership numbers.

The EFF has an easy-to-use labour desk from which you can contact them directly with your labour grievance, so that they can directly mobilise.

If you are a member of the NRA you are alerted to every piece of legislation and bill that comes before a committee in your area that affect gun rights and precisely which locations and times these committees are held with what public participation is required from members.

So how do we apply their approach to our industry? We need to keep legislation and policy making on the top of our minds. We need to keep producers informed and have specialised structures in place that deal only with these issues.

Although effective, this strategy does come with the risk of being seen as confrontational, disingenuous, and fake. It's therefore important to have a strategy in place so that you'll know how to proceed when you have the attention of policy makers.

Optics, optics, optics

There is a reason why the EFF wear their red overalls regardless of people’s opinion of their choice of attire.

We cannot, in the most unequal society in the world, put the massive white Cape Dutch buildings and exclusivity of our R1 000 bottle wines front and center when the minimum wage is R23,19 an hour and we have one of the worst levels of fetal alcohol syndrome around. No matter the reality on the ground, it makes our industry look bad.

Work with government when you have their attention

Politics is an interesting beast to deal with. Although we all have many opinions about politicians, we need to work with them directly if we want to stand any chance to make a change. It is in our best interest to understand how they work.

As a politician, you have a delicate balancing act to perform:

  1. You must keep the constituents happy;
  2. you have to keep your assigned department functional (many times an industry or field of which you have little knowledge);
  3. and you also have to tow the party line (to ensure that even if your party wins the required positions, you still have a job).

Of these three, unfortunately for our industry, running a department is usually secondary to the other two. This is because, most of the time, there is only a small overlap between the constituents that keep you and your party in power and the specialised industry you must manage.

Economist Wandile Sihlobo likes to quote Plato when saying “Great storytellers rule society”, and when dealing with politicians he is dead on the money.

You have to connect with the people on an emotional level. You must tell a story that involves them and connects with them. Why is it in their best interest to do what you need them to do? You must show how following your suggested course of action will help them stay in power while keeping their department functional. If you can make them look good while doing it, all the better.

Practical strategies

On a more practical level it can be done by focussing on some of the points below:

  • Get government staff involved: Make your plan part of their story. Get them invested in the plan. If they have skin in the game, they will be more attentive and ensure it stays top of mind and long fingers out of the till.
  • Development partners that financially or technically support government-run agricultural and social protection policies and programmes: Back the policies and plans that are already in play. If it is feasible, we must support it as much as we can, with enthusiasm! This may sometimes be a hard one to swallow given the track record of the plans and policies we unfortunately read about in the Sunday newspapers, but as they say: it is the thought that counts. It is about being willing.
  • Civil society organisations (CSOs): Issues facing the wine sector are numerous, but so are the challenges faced by many other sectors. We have to help each other where we can. This shows solidarity and gives us grater bargaining power.
  • Coherence, a systematic promotion of complementary and consistent policies and programmes across sectors: As we know, policies and government programmes can be lacking. Here we must use our expertise to fill in the gaps where we can. This does not mean taking over and doing governments job when they fail. Once again optics. Nobody likes to be shown up especially in a public space.
  • Diversification that is more resilient to economic changes: We must invest in our futures. It is not just about farmers and primary producers. We need to diversify our value chains and develop more cross-functional industry skills and expertise. The more industries we are connected with, the stronger our bargaining power.

There are currently seven national assembly bills and one bill before the national council of provinces that directly and profoundly affect the agricultural sector.

There are more affecting financial, labour, and infrastructure that can also have an influence on agriculture in South Africa. We are all aware of the big-ticket items such as The Expropriation Bill [B23-2020], but most producers will have a hard time naming any of the other ones, such as The Preservation and Development of Agricultural Land Bill (B8-2021), or knowing how they will affect them as producers.

We have to engage actively and constantly with the public sector bureaucrats and politicians, because no matter how much we want to take the wheel, they are in the driver’s seat.

We cannot think of an “us” and a “them”; the political landscape is unlikely to change anytime soon. The government has been chosen and we must work with them no matter our personal views. Without policy support and political will to enact these policies, we are dead in the water.