Thursday, November 3, 2016

Moral dilemmas

Stanley - Thursday

I recently read two articles that transported me to the dark ages of apartheid, to a time when people and organisations opposed to the vile ways of institutionalised racial discrimination faced difficult decisions about what to do about it.

Individuals who wanted to rid South Africa of discrimination often had a difficult time.  If you were Black and active, the police were frequently brutal.  Not only could you be beaten up and imprisoned, but, if you were effective, you could also end up dead, as did Steve Biko and others.

If you were White and effective, you could face a range of possible punishments—arrest without trial, home arrest, being banned (that is your ability to meet with people was curtailed and nothing you wrote could be published).  In general, the consequences were not as draconian as those for Blacks.  The government was also highly successful in intimidating everyone so that parents often forbade their children to become actively involved in ‘the movement’, frequently threatening to withdraw the financial support for university for any child who took part in protests, and so on.

Overseas corporations were put under increasing pressure by their stockholders and customers to pull out of South Africa.  The decision for a corporation to stay or leave was usually not an easy one: staying, resulted in increasing pressure back home, boycotts of goods, and protests outside buildings; leaving, frequently meant those you wanted to help ended up in worse circumstances.  Those who left, gave up any chance of direct influence on government police; those who decided to stay, tried to influence change from within by openly pushing back on the racial employment laws, by training and promoting Blacks.  

Educational institutions were subject to the same pressures.  When I was at the University of Illinois, there was a strong movement for the university to divest itself of all stock in its portfolio of companies that did business with South Africa.  I didn’t think this to be constructive and argued that an educational institution’s role could be more effective if, for example, it created a scholarship fund from the dividends of the stock and used it to further the education of South African Blacks.  My suggestion was heckled and ridiculed by the protestors. 

I often wonder whether my position of engagement would have been more or less effective than disengagement.  Engagement is complicated and fraught with moral ambiguities; disengagement is easy and the moral issues can be ignored.

Would I take the same position today given similar circumstances.  I honestly don’t know.

So what were these articles that threw me back to the times of apartheid and the decisions people and organisations had to make?

The first (which you can read here) reported that some Danish and  Swedish retailers are pulling South African wines off their shelves, particularly wines from the Robertson area a couple of hundred kilometres from Cape Town.  Sweden, as a county, is considering an overall ban.

What sparked this was a documentary by Danish filmmaker Tom Heinemann, Bitter Grapes - Slavery in the Vineyards, highlighting the awful conditions under which many of the workers labour.  Not only are salaries abysmal (around US$300 a month, with free accommodation), but a centuries-old practice, known as the dop system was still in place.  What this means is that the vineyard owners supplement the salaries by giving the workers free wine.  As you can imagine, this isn’t good for worker health. (At present the workers are on strike for a monthly wage of about US$600.)

Workers in the vineyards (Photo: Esa Alexander)

Worker accommodation (Photo: Esa Alexander)
On the surface, this looks like a cut and dried case.  Boycott South African wines to force winemakers to improve conditions.

However, as with the apartheid times, such simple decisions come wrapped in real moral dilemmas.

The average South African wine sells for about US$3.  Yes, that is THREE dollars.  Half of that amount is taken up with bottle; label, cork, and tax.  Another US$0.75 for transportation, leaving the farmer US$0.75 a bottle from which to pay the labourers, maintain the farm, and make a profit.

At the same time, the same bottle of wine, whose export price is kept low by huge pressure by overseas importers, is often sold for big multiples of its South African price to European and American consumers.  In fact, the Swedish state monopoly, the Systembolaget, probably makes 25 times the profit on selling a bottle of South African wine than does the farmer who produced it.

It is easy for retailers and government to advocate boycotting South African wines.  It looks good, and it feels right. 

But what are the consequences? 

South African farmers, no paragons of virtue, argue rightly that they will be forced into making a horrible choice.  They say, probably correctly, that they have continued to hire workers, albeit under awful circumstances, because of the already horrific unemployment rate.  It is easy, the farmers say, to move their farms to being highly mechanised, as are the farms of competing nations, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile.  Mechanisation would lower the costs of production, increase profits, and keep the importers happy.  However, the unemployment rate would soar, and those families now earning a pittance, would earn nothing.

So, what do you think Sweden and other countries should do?  Wash their hands and disengage?  Or engage and try to influence what is happening? 

And what is your personal position?  What do you think?  Will you avoid buying South African wines in the future because you now know the conditions under which some of the wine is made—even though it could lead to people losing their jobs?  Or will you continue to buy South African wines, helping to keep people employed, even though you know the conditions of employment are exploitative?

I’d love to hear your opinions.

(The second article, Walking the Talk, from which I gleaned a lot about this issue and the South African wine industry, was written by Michael Fridjhon.  It can be read here.)


  1. As you so eloquently point out, Stan, there is no right or wrong, black or white answer to this form of situation. No matter which side one comes down on, some good folk will be harmed and some bad will profit. About the best one can hope for is that whatever position is taken it's done with a clear understanding of its intended goal so that if an adjustment of policy becomes necessary, all are onboard with the shift.

  2. Stan, the thing I question is transaction that puts almost all the profit in the pockets of the middlemen, which curtails the profitability of the vineyard owners and therefore makes higher wages and better conditions for the farm workers practically impossible. I don't have a quick answer for how to change that, but that is the place where fairness goes awry. And that is the point where the math needs to change. Maybe refuse to buy/sell wine through importers who gouge on prices at the expense of the producers. There has to be a way at that point. The problem, of course, is that the receiving countries are more likely to enact rules that protect their own. And it is easier to grab at a solution that can be explained in a sound bite than to hammer out a process that is fair to everyone in that food chain.

  3. I readily admit that I agree with AmA's reply entirely, and hate to admit that I also agree with Jeff. "Economics" is difficult enough to work out between a loving couple. When you get millions of people (and billions of dollars) involved... well, somehow a 4-letter word like 'mess' just doesn't cover it.

    On a lighter side of a dark subject, when I first saw the photo of "Worker accomodations," for a fleeting moment I thought it was a Vermeer painting: the classic high contrasts of bright and dark, the window on the left, the woman at work. First impressions. Heh.

    1. EvKa, great eyes... I saw Vermeer in that too, even in the head wrapping. I wonder what Essa Alexander was thinking.