Like most South Africans, the second ban on alcohol caught me completely unawares. This means I had not ‘stocked up,’ and seeing that I depleted all of my ‘nice’ wine, which I was saving for a special occasion, during the first alcohol ban and had not managed to replace these, the alcohol stock levels in my house were running pretty low.
The first two weeks, during which I allowed myself carefully measured-out amounts of wine, beer, or whatever was left in the house, went by relatively smoothly. By week three, however, I was exclusively down to ‘whatever was left in the house.’ And, that’s when things started to become a bit unpleasant. I’ve never been one for sweet drinks, so couldn’t stomach enough Triple Sec or ginger liquor for it to have any effect. It was after staring at an untouched bottle of witblits for a prolonged period of time by the end of week three (I absolutely hate the stuff) that I knew action was required.
I live in a small dorpie. If you want something that’s illegal (in my youth this would be stuff like cocaine or dagga), you just ask people straight out where you can find your poison. I must say, I didn’t foresee the day when alcohol and cigarettes would be illegal and dagga freely available. But that’s a discussion for another day. So, I start to ask around about the liquor black market in my town. I think it’s the second person I speak to, my friend, Susan, who tells me about “Robertson Dry Red.”
Now, I am not a well-off person by any means. In fact, I have been holding onto my middle-class status by the skin of my teeth for most of my adult life. But I come from a solid Afrikaans home. Apart from a good brandy and coke, my parents like their wine. I can smell green apple or passion fruit (if it’s there) in a sauvignon blanc, and one year I won the annual wine competition my parents host at the coast, by correctly identifying an unwooded chardonnay. This means that I don’t like Robertson Dry Red. I, too, have resorted to buying box wine in the tough economic times that our country has been facing in recent years, but I have been fortunate enough to be able to opt for a Robertson Merlot or a Shiraz papsak.
However, I am an open-minded woman and I know that tough times call for tough measures. Susan tells me that a guy she knows is selling 5-litre papsakke of Robertson Dry Red at R300 a shot. I am well informed and know people have paid ridiculous prices like R300 for a six pack of Castle dumpies during COVID, so I realise I have struck gold. I decide to go all out and order two papsakke, and also let my good friend Frikkie know, who promptly also puts in an order for a papsak. The next day I receive a WhatsApp from Susan informing me that, sorry, she was mistaken. It’s actually R350 per papsak, as it’s Robertson Merlot not Robertson Dry Red, and can I please drop off the cash.
I need to urgently get to Port Elizabeth for a meeting, so I hurriedly drop off the cash for my and Frikkie’s papsakke with Susan on my way out of town. Perhaps it’s prudent to just mention here that Susan is a free spirit. I went on a 20-kilometre walk to Oyster Bay with her once, during which she carried a 5-litre of frozen water with her while jumping over the rocks, without shoes, like a fairy — or, perhaps, a banshee. And, she has worked on chokka boats — enough said. Well, as I hand the cash to Susan, she says, “Oh, did I mention the wine comes in plastic 5-litre bottles, as Eric pours the wine straight from the barrel?” Alarm bells go off. Firstly, I know Eric. He works at a boatyard and he actually does snort cocaine. I ask, “But Susan, how on earth does Eric have access to barrels of Robertson wine? Is this wine actually Robertson Merlot?” It’s after her answer, which goes “Ahhhh, my friend, it’s merloish. Yes, there’s a bit of a plastic taste to the wine, but after you have poured it in a few empty wine bottles and leave it for a day in the fridge, it tastes quite ok,” that I decide to compartmentalise and temporarily forget about the issue of the Robertson wine and get on with my day. I leave with a wave and frown on my face.
Fast forward. It’s Saturday, and I have invited Susan, Frikkie, and a few other friends for a braai, knowing that we will, at least, have some merloish wine to pair with our Karoo lamb chops. I am slightly apprehensive about the wine, but also say to myself, “How bad can it be? Wine is wine! Let’s just be grateful for having some!” With this in mind, I get a slight spring in my step and prepare a few delicious side dishes and decorate the table with some fynbos I collected on my last jog. The doorbell rings. It is Frikkie. He gives me the money for the wine and I feel the least I can do is tell him that this is, in all probability, not Robertson Merlot we’re going to drink. Frikkie is a nice guy and just shrugs his shoulders.
The doorbell rings again — it’s Susan. As I open the door, I try to welcome her warmly, but am thrown off-guard by the three 5-litre water bottles filled with red liquid she is carrying. I have to say, this is a far cry from what I initially visualised when I ordered three 5-liter Robertson Dry Red, or rather, Merlot boxes of wine. But, as I said, I come from a good home. I consciously wipe the look of exasperation from my face and invite my friend in. Some more friends arrive and after some chit-chat Susan suggests that I taste a bit of the wine. So, I send her off to the bar area and continue chatting with my guests.
I stop mid-sentence during a lively conversation as, all of a sudden, an awful smell pervades the air. I turn around, and Susan is walking toward me with a big glass of red wine. She’s a few metres away, but already the smell of diesel is all-invasive. However, that’s not the most disconcerting smell. After the diesel, a next level of aroma, you may say, hits one straight between the brows—on the third eye if you will. It’s half familiar but also strange at the same time — one moment it reminds you of smelly socks and the next, a dead dog. Susan is still advancing with a huge smile on her face when I lift my hand to indicate “halt.” At this stage I am feeling I am about to get sick so cannot trust myself to actually scream “stop!”
Susan, looking like a lost deer caught in headlights, starts to offer the wine to the others but everybody declines, albeit in a more subtle way than I have. Except for Frikkie, who is always the ultimate gentleman. He takes two long strides to Susan, blocks his nose and takes a gulp. I have never quite seen the expression that Frikkie had on his face afterwards, and I have known him for many years. He first went a fiery red and, then, he turned deathly pale, and his eyes, which are normally so full of life, glazed over and lost all expression. I felt immensely sorry for my friend at that moment.
The braai was not a huge success. Apart from having to entertain my guests while sipping on Rooibos tea, I had to deal with Susan who was succeeding in getting drunk on my diesel wine and having episodes of “dronkverdriet.” But by far the most challenging part of the day was looking across the table at the sad, yet resolute face of my dear friend, Frikkie. He managed to work his way through three glasses of diesel wine that day. But he didn’t speak much at all and left without touching his lamb choppie. It was excruciating to see. I learnt a few things that day. Firstly, even a dedicated drinker like myself has limits. If Susan’s “Robertson Merlot” was the only alcohol left on earth, I would become a teetotaller. And secondly, you cannot trust a government that forces its people to drink diesel wine.
*Please note that the content of this article has been exaggerated for artistic reasons and some sections and characters are purely fictional. No-one was harmed in the making of this story!