On a warm and sunny afternoon in South Africa’s wine country, Ntsiki Biyela smiled as she remembered arriving here in the famed Stellenbosch region just east of Cape Town and seeing the strange “small trees” that lined the landscape.
“I never saw such short trees,” she told NBC News. “I asked what they were and they said, ‘grapes.’”
That was the first time Biyela had ever seen a vineyard — and her first step toward becoming a winemaker, the first black woman in South Africa ever to do so.
It was 1999. Apartheid, the oppressive system of racial segregation that had governed life in South Africa for more than half a century, had ended only five years before. Nelson Mandela was the first post-apartheid president. And Ntsiki Biyela had recently finished high school in her rural village in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. She was earning money as a domestic worker when an opportunity came her way. She was told about an effort to bring more people of color into the wine industry through an initiative with Stellenbosch University, known throughout the world for its winemaking program.
Biyela applied. Not only was she accepted, she won a four-year scholarship. “Luckily,” she says, “the scholarship paid for everything because I grew up with my grandmother and she couldn’t afford all these things.” Biyela was one of four or five black students — in a class of 60.
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