The Women Making the South African Wine Scene ‘Less Pale and Male’
Historically, the industry has been dominated by Cape Town-adjacent white men. That’s starting to change
Pinkie Bapela passes her Sauvignon Blanc around the table at a shebeen in Atteridgeville township outside of Pretoria, South Africa. A partner at Pheli Wines, Bapela is proud that the young wine has already won an award in Spain.
“There are few black women in wine here,” she says. “It’s because of our history. Wine was always an affluent type of a drink, so we’re trying to be as accessible as we can be.”
Accessibility starts here, in the driveway and cozy open garage, eating serve-yourself chicken feet and boiled peanuts. A shebeen is a unique type of casual eating venue—half-restaurant, half-home—popular throughout Africa and, in South Africa, the townships that line the cities. (The term, however, was coined in Ireland.) Traditionally, the family-run eateries served traditional housemade malt beers and spirits, but tonight wine bottles in buckets anchor each table, littered with half-glasses of white and red and sparkling, and we could be in Brooklyn or even Rome. The food is served buffet-style on a long table with stewed meats, potatoes, steamed bread, maize and more.
Founded in 2013 by Moyahabo Anna Seemola, Pheli Wines is named after the Zulu word “Phelindaba,” meaning “end of the story,” though we are at the beginning, the prologue. Noticing the high demand of South African wines at home and abroad, Seemola decided to dive deep into an industry that, historically, has been dominated by Cape Town-adjacent white men. (As Bangu Masisi, president of South African Tourism for the U.S. and Canada, puts it, the industry has always been “pale and male.” Now, slightly less so.) Making a name for itself in inland communities and already winning awards in Europe, Pheli now produces a 2016 Sauvignon Blanc and 2014 Syrah, respectively branded “Oudstad” and “Black Rock” after two areas of Atteridgeville, and they hope to make at least six varieties.
Bapela believes that black women in wine must work three times as hard to prove themselves, as they must in other industries. “It’s not easy,” she says—but it’s worth it. “We see what it can do, even just mentoring young black people, because we are inland and not as exposed as the coastal region. We’re not Cape Town.”
Ricky Mdalam, a player in the wine scene for fifteen years and investor in Pheli Wines, corroborates this, describing Cape Town as “a European city smack dab in the middle of Africa.” Over the past five years, though, he’s seen more black people—far inland of the well-known coastal wineries—entering the viticulture space, though he’s reluctant to call this movement a transformation.
“’Transformation’ in a South African context is very complicated,” he says. “Because on the one side it means: get a black face and stick a couple of labels on the bottles. And on the other end, what you see with Pheli Wines: she’s the wine maker and has her own brand. We’re at this juncture, training young black folk in viticulture and taking it to the level where they’re turning it into a business. It’s happening very slowly.”
Transformation may not be realistic, but the pursuit of it is energizing, and Mdalam is heartened by the progress he’s seen in the townships. “A black person in a township can’t afford to do the things that people are doing in Cape Town,” he says. “We need to expose black excellence. Change comes from the kids, as tour guides.” He considers the proliferation of township tours, in which (largely white) groups of tourists get shown around the traditionally underdeveloped black neighborhoods born of apartheid, to be a mostly good thing. “It creates an industry for the townships that has always just been in the city. You do Pheli, then a tour of this area. It creates an industry for the townships that has always just been in the city.”
A more targeted model for growth is one presented by Siphokazi Kwakweni, the program manager at the Pinotage Development Youth Development Academy. Every year, the organization offers 25 students from the townships (out of 300 applicants) the opportunity to immerse themselves in every aspect of the wine industry—and they land jobs after graduating. (Unemployment in the townships is estimated to be roughly 60%.)
“We work with young people between the ages of 18 and 25 coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and we prepare them for employment in the wine industry,” says Kwakweni. “Once they’re done here they’re able to secure meaningful employment in the wine industry, wine tourism and food industry.”
Phelisa Ntsokotha, 21, works as a front hostess at Seven Sisters Wine bistro nestled in the rolling hills of the scenic Western Cape, a job she landed after graduation. Ntsokotha grew up and lives in Kayamondi, a township outside of Cape Town constructed in 1950s apartheid to house black migrant laborers. Her first exposure to wine was watching people mix Coke and red wine as a child. Now, she laughs at the idea. She says her favorite wine is Cabernet Sauvignon.
“In 10 years, I want to finish my studies so I can get more qualifications in the wine industry so I can maybe one day have my own label,” she says. This could happen. She works for Seven Sisters Wine, a label owned by a woman who hails from a poor fishing village and only entered the wine space in 2003. With her siblings, Vivian Kleynhan now runs one of most visible and successful South African wine brands—and one of the only black-run wineries in the Stellenbosch area.
Rose Jordaan, owner of Bartinney Wine, feels invigorated by the young generation of women winemakers, for whom she largely credits the South African wine boom. This new wave has known they wanted to work in wine from very young ages, rather than pivoting later in life—this gives them an exciting advantage.
“Women are coming into this industry en force,” she says. “They’re determined, they’re strong, but more than that, they’re incredibly talented.”