Bruce Juice – June 2020


Dear  Wine Adventurers,

Lockdown regulations in South Africa are easing, while the contagion spreads. A lot hasn’t made sense over the last few months, but we can agree that our version of lockdown has taken us down the Wonderland rabbit hole and to the summit of human kindness.

It is said by informed commentators that our President is not always surrounded by those he has chosen himself. It is similarly no secret that many at the top of the ANC have their snouts firmly in the gravy train trough. It is patiently explained to me that this is because he “plays the long game” and has had to compromise on his cabinet for political, ANC reasons. Others, like the ex-mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, are less kind, empathically stating that he is not in control and that the ANC have failed South Africa.

It doesn’t matter what you think of the current leadership of the ANC or the cabinet, because these people have been democratically elected. These are our leaders, for better or worse, and while it often feels hopeless, it is also true that personal insults hurled from ‘outside the room’ turn everyone ‘in the room’ against you, even if what you are saying makes sense to some ‘in the room’. That’s human nature.

This is just one of the many interesting lessons I have learnt over the past few months of Covid-induced lockdown. While my bias is not without justification and is fuelled by ample (public knowledge) examples of self-serving, short-sighted politicians clearly intent on self-enrichment at the cost of South African society at large, something else is also clear – I am bad at communicating my frustration and disappointment.

I am guilty of sometimes playing the man (or woman) and not the ball. I should know better – it is the foundation principle of any good sportsperson. It doesn’t matter how underhanded an opponent is, if you are better prepared and more skilled you will beat them by playing fairly, but with twice as much focus and intent.

The rules of engagement where our government is concerned require one to first earn the right to criticise decisions. It doesn’t matter how corrupt or incompetent you feel our leadership might be, they have been democratically elected. As such, they have earned the right to be “in the room” and if any of us want to engage with leadership, we need to earn that right as well.

What earns one the right? Firstly, to be properly informed – to be knowledgeable – about our history, our recent path, our reality, our current environment, our constraints, the characters at play, the metrics, the demographics, our economics…

Secondly, to be empathetic.

Thirdly to be honest – with yourself – to know thyself – in this case to know what our bias is and what our default agenda is, and to be certain that agenda has the upliftment of society as a core principle.

Finally, to contribute in action (not just words) to the rejuvenation of your neighbourhood, your city, your country and your world. Then one earns the right to criticise.

Which all makes me cautious about this idea of prohibition. My analysis is that the bizarre and damaging decision to stop the export of wine was less about incompetence and idiocy as it was about overwhelm. I would not like to have sat on the Covid-response command council as this crisis unfolded – especially when I knew the person sitting next to me was as out of their depth as I was.

That leadership in this country has been exposed is nothing new – that it has been exposed on such a huge scale to so many of our citizens is more interesting.

Prohibition as a philosophy will never work in our society. Our deep-seated ills cannot be blamed on access to alcohol… or dangerous weapons, etc… Our problem is a lack of hope – the essential cornerstone of any engaged, caring and constructive society. The question we need our leadership to answer is not how to treat the symptoms, but how to fix the root cause of our self-destruction – despair.

We have a plan at Bruce Jack Wines – we haven’t given up on the world. It’s called The HeadStart Trust and our focus has always been on providing inspiring education opportunities to the most marginalised – primary school kids in our poor, rural areas.

Music Education into Soup Kitchens

Covid has forced us to refocus The HeadStart Trust. Within a few weeks of lockdown, it was obvious that the majority of piecemeal workers in poor rural areas of South Africa had no food. A proportion of these are foreign nationals, who, along with many South Africans without access to the UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund) or other social grants, started going hungry before our eyes. You see it with the kids first. And it breaks your heart.

Driven by the trust’s General Manager, Dr WP van Zyl and with the consent of the trustees we repurposed the trust to become the bridge between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ so we could help feed the hungry.

We tapped into our networks and raised money through donations. We funnelled more of our profit into the trust. We utilised our drivers and delivery vans to collect soup ingredients and plugged these supplies into the existing food relief structures in our rural communities.

We were joined by my friend Scott Millar, who, with his Head of Operations, Anja Brandt, run the biggest independent flour mill in the Western Cape. With incredible generosity, they gave weekly bread donations. Robert Graaff, a substantial fruit grower and friend from Ceres, sent apples – tens of thousands of apples…

With their help, our donations, and profit from the sale of our wine we now contribute to the feeding of between 10 000 and 20 000 people a week. Most of our food goes through two central distribution kitchens – Antionette Events in Bredasdorp and Black Oystercatcher Restaurant (funded by the Nuwejaars Wetland Project).

We have had great support from our journalist friends, especially Richard Siddle in the UK, who have helped highlight the plight of those suffering in our poor rural areas.

But the biggest thanks must go to the hundreds of donors to The HeadStart Trust who have contributed from across the world. We are truly humbled and amazed by your empathy and inspired by your care and generosity. I have to highlight my old school mates from my matric year – they have formed the cornerstone of this massive donating effort – legends all of them.

We know this is a short-term solution. We know the HeadStart Trust must revert to the skills development mantra that is our founding principle, because we know therein lies hope. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

I have witnessed the revaluing of civil society as a result of this chaos. It was inspirational to see Stanford Rotary click into action and quadruple their feeding schemes and soup kitchen outputs within weeks in response to the growing numbers of hungry, desperate people. There were many such examples.

Churches, mosques, etc… all found a renewed purpose. This was civil society in action – galvanized, stronger, relevant. What a welcome relief to the empty, compromised promises from local governments we have become used to.

Clipped wings

My wife mentioned casually the other night that by her reckoning I have never travelled so little in over 20 years. That made me smile. Another lockdown silver lining. We all have stories of how this forced change has affected us – some good, some not so good.

One of our longest serving farm hands lost his cousin to the virus a few days ago. She was 55. Our community is small, and this has had the devastating impact one would expect – not only because it is someone close to us, but because we fear this is just the beginning. We are heading into what promises to be a cold, drawn-out, wet winter. Many in our southern Agulhas community do not have food, many have no income and the warmest most will be this winter is around an outside fire. We are all bracing ourselves. We don’t know how this virus will impact the most vulnerable amongst us.

We are entrenched on the estate, resurrecting old farm trailers, fixing vehicles, building roads, caring for our barrels, planting cover-crops, trying to keep the otter out of the chicken coop, bottling wine, sowing wheat, foraging wild mushrooms, cutting back protea, grazing sheep, making biltong, pruning vines, laying irrigation pipes, selling wine, fixing fences, bottling raw honey, repairing rooves, bottling olive oil… planning… scheming… hustling…

To make agriculture work as a livelihood seems much more complicated and tenuous than it should be. But I have seen civil society revalued and appreciated during this crisis, so I believe it is possible agriculture may also one day become revalued and appreciated. I wonder what shock to the system that will take…

There isn’t a wine business in South Africa that isn’t suffering. I suspect hundreds of wine farms will be for sale and dozens of brands will disappear off the radar this year. With any luck we will pull through. The wines in barrel keep whispering to me that we have no choice.

I wish safety, health and fortitude for you all,