Cape faces a sober New Year

Cape Town and Table Mountain from Bloubergstrand

No booze, no beaches. South Africa is closed until further notice, reports Malu Lambert. Picture of Table Mountain and Cape Town from Bloubergstrand by Erica Moodie courtesy of WOSA.

Never say never. I was adamant there wouldn’t be another blanket ban on alcohol sales in South Africa. The devastating damage to the wine industry the first two bans wrought made such a decision seem improbable, cruel. If anything, I thought a system of carefully considered restrictions around the sale and trade of alcohol might be imposed, perhaps a limit on cellar-door sales or on quantities bought per person.

Unfortunately, once again we find ourselves in a stranglehold. On 28 December 2020, President Ramaphosa addressed the nation, reinstating Alert Level 3, which completely prohibits the domestic sale of any alcoholic drink for on- and off-consumption, until 15 January 2021. And, just to make sure that this peak summer holiday season is as unenjoyable as possible, all beaches and many other outdoor spaces nationwide have been closed to the public.

Cape Town is renowned for its natural beauty, a landscape threaded along its rim with white sandy beaches and glittering waters, the cityscape itself wrapped around by the Table Mountain National Park, an embrace of green belts, mountain hikes and, always within close proximity, vineyards. Cape Town is a rare paradise that allows locals and the thousands of visitors we usually receive from the northern hemisphere at this time of year, the ability to hop from forest to beach to botanical garden or rocky peak, all within the space of a day. These attractions and its vibrant, innovative food and wine scene are what draws international tourism here to the tip of Africa. This December, though, those Atlantic stretches are desolate, the restaurants quiet and subdued, the wineries shuttered. The absence of British accents, usually a welcome and commonplace sound during the festive period, is jarring.

Those in middle-class suburban homes may have the benefit of a garden, often with a pool, but for the disadvantaged communities, this outlawing of the outdoors means more crowding in indoor places. Surely this is the antithesis of what the South African government should want to achieve?

The tourism industry, dependent on the annual influx of international visitors, has suffered tremendously. Beachside hotels have reported cancellations that run into the millions of rand. Many are closing their doors, again. And even those who bravely stay open are now facing an onslaught of last-minute drop-offs. My friends in the hospitality sector tell me every day is now a bloody new war. [Sounds familiar to many of us in Europe and the US, but at least we can buy a bottle of wine JR.]

According to industry body Vinpro, ‘The previous two bans had a devastating impact on the wine industry with a loss of more than R7.5 billion in sales revenue, significant job losses and a number of wineries and tourism facilities being forced to shut their doors. As a result the industry now has more than 250 million litres of uncontracted wine, with the 2021 harvest to commence within the next two weeks, which will place further strain on businesses’ already dire financial position. This situation, combined with the third ban, will do untold economic damage to the wine sector and the 290,000 livelihoods it supports.’

This new blow to the wine and tourism industries came in response to the number of COVID-19 cases in South Africa having just passed the one million mark. Experts have cited the rapid rise on the new variant of the coronavirus, 501.V2, first identified in the UK and now running rampant in SA.

Premier Alan Winde of the Western Cape – where South Africa’s vineyards and cellars are situated – is working tirelessly to add new beds to hospitals (including field sites). He reported on Tuesday that total COVID-related deaths in the province were 6,512 to date.

Also part of the Alert Level 3 mandate is a curfew from 9 pm until 6 am, a death blow to an already beleaguered hospitality industry, especially those in the fine-dining sector. Some, such as Peter Tempelhoff’s FYN in Cape Town, have brought forward their dinner booking slots to 4.306 pm, while many others have simply closed until restrictions are lifted.

Chef Liam Tomlin is proprietor of the lauded Chefs Warehouse portfolio of restaurants. In July he was the instigator of the #JobsSaveLives movement, which among other actions saw the nation’s restaurants carrying tables and chairs out into the streets during a peaceful protest on 21 July to highlight the plight of the industry.

Tomlin in the meantime has opened a new restaurant, Chefs Warehouse Tintswalo Atlantic on Hout Bay, as well as a wine bar, Penny Noire in Cape Town’s city centre, which has now closed due to the restrictions.

Sommelier Penelope Setti, for whom the bar was named, says the mood is sombre. ‘Less than two weeks after opening, we cannot trade as a wine bar, without the obvious product. It’s a hard blow for us who work in the industry. I understand the curfews and gravity of the situation, but shutting down a restaurant’s wine sales doesn’t make sense as my guests have wine and food together responsibly. Cape Town is a food and wine destination, and that needs to be taken into account. After our extended lockdown no one can afford this, especially considering we were already under the strain of not having our usual summer season.’

MD of Vinpro Rico Basson is in agreement that more thought-out measures could be put into place without the crippling of the wine, tourism and hospitality industries. In a statement in he said:

‘We submitted proposals which included alternative interventions as opposed to an outright ban to mitigate risks and formally engage with government. It is unfortunate that these proposals did not find their way into the final regulations to ensure a differentiated approach. We truly believe limitations on wine sales can be imposed in a less damaging manner that would alleviate the impact on the healthcare system and decrease transmission, while still helping to preserve livelihoods.

‘Many lessons have been learned from lockdown levels 5 [when all wine exports were banned; see South Africa the toughest country?] and 4, including that the restriction of legal trade of alcohol fuels the growth of the illicit market. Because this illicit market is outside the regulatory reach of government and operates uncontrolled, it leads to devastating consequences from a health and economic perspective.’

One glimmer of hope is that this time the transport and export of wine can continue, as well as warehousing of wine. So, from the South African wine industry to our friends overseas: you may not be able to visit us at the moment non-essential flights from the UK, the tourism industry’s most important market by far, have been suspended since 23 December – but your palates can still fly. Let your next wine choice be South African, and help our unique region pass through this storm.