Alcohol industry and government have to do better

The three sales bans the government has imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic have placed South Africans’ alcohol abuse and the booze industry’s predatory nature firmly in the spotlight.

The liquor industry is built on the back of exploitation and human suffering. It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see South Africa’s biggest brewery caught in a storm of accusations about undermining government policy, all in the name of profiteering while thousands of people were, and still are, dying because of Covid-19. 

The brewery has never really had a moral compass. When it was still called the Castle Brewery, before eventually merging to form South African Breweries (SAB), it was on the wrong side of history during the Bhambatha Rebellion in 1906. Led by iNkosi uBhambatha kaManciza, the rebellion was a protest against the colonial government’s poll tax, which forced African people to pay for existing in their ancestral land. 

The Natal colony was self-governing at the time, which meant it had no military support from Britain. That’s where the brewery stepped in, financing the Natal militia to quash the rebellion and kill thousands of Zulus for having the audacity to stand up to tyranny. Through one of its brands, Lion Lager, the brewery sponsored the Springboks during apartheid, fuelling one of the biggest symbols of Black oppression. 

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The SAB’s recent act isn’t out of character, but it has managed to do what looked impossible: unite South Africans in their support for the alcohol ban. This follows the SAB’s influencer campaign on social media that sought to oppose a decision taken to ease the burden on an already strained healthcare system. A leaked influencer brief exposed the SAB’s questionable campaign, which included celebrities and influential figures on Twitter quoting verbatim the alleged number of job losses and the financial impact of the alcohol ban. There was no explanation for where those numbers came from. 

Before the leak, there was nothing official pointing to the SAB or to say that the messages were part of a campaign. This raises concerns about the regulation of such “advertising”. The SAB dropped all pretence after being exposed, commenting on the posts to further amplify the message and attempt to win public sympathy. It backfired terribly, because the SAB didn’t gauge the country’s mood. Instead of winning over the public, it appeared crass and inconsiderate at a time when everyone is trying to pull together to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the middle of a devastating second wave. 

The alcohol industry, like many others, has been negatively affected by the pandemic and the enforced levels of lockdown. People’s livelihoods have been affected and many jobs have been lost. But the ban was an important measure in terms of easing the burden on the healthcare system. 

11 August 2020: Warehouse workers at the SAB’s Alrode plant during the second alcohol sales ban related to Covid-19. It was lifted a week later. (Photographer by Waldo Swiegers/ Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Positive results

The image of an empty trauma ward at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital on New Year’s Day was sobering. The hospital announced that this was a historic first. It achieved this largely owing to the alcohol ban, as well as the 9pm curfew that President Cyril Ramaphosa had imposed. 

Doctors across the country have been expressing their gratitude for the ban, saying the decrease in trauma cases has eased their burden and given them the space to deal with Covid-19, which has required most of their attention.

Obviously, the alcohol ban isn’t feasible or desirable as a long-term solution to address the social ills that come with South Africans’ alcohol abuse. Prohibition has never been a hindrance to drinking. People simply find other ways to get their fix, and sometimes it involves dangerous measures that put their lives and health at risk. It’s alarming that even though about 60% of the country’s population doesn’t drink, South Africans still rank among the heaviest drinkers in the world. 

The biggest challenge is that most of the drinkers are heavy drinkers. This alcohol abuse contributes to other social ills such as the carnage on our roads, the high crime rate and the violence that goes with it, and the pandemic levels of domestic abuse. 

For all this to change, the government needs to do better. It must implement policies that will curb this scourge and consistently act on the laws that already exist. In 2016, Rob Davies, then the minister of trade and industry, announced plans to get tougher on alcohol with the National Liquor Amendment Bill. The amendments sought to raise the minimum drinking age from 18 to 21, increase prices, restrict alcohol advertising and limit trading hours, among other measures. 

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Five years later, after much consultation with stakeholders, nothing has happened. The liquor industry’s lobbying power can never be underestimated, with some former ministers and top ANC people having served on the SAB’s board as non-executive directors. The very same SAB had a close relationship with the apartheid government that helped maintain its strong monopoly in the market. 

The government needs to be tougher on alcohol abuse if we are to avoid its dire consequences. The reason drinking and driving is so prevalent in South Africa is that the punishment isn’t a deterrent. Just R50 can buy your way to sleeping in your own bed after a night of heavy drinking, instead of spending it in a cell. This despite the graveness of an offence that has serious consequences not only for your life but also for the lives of innocent drivers and pedestrians. 

Cost versus benefit

The government also needs to get tougher on the industry. Even though it creates thousands of jobs and contributes to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), studies show that the consequences of alcohol abuse take away some of that contribution. The impact of alcohol abuse was found to have cost South Africa R37.9 billion in 2009, the equivalent of 1.6% of that year’s GDP. 

The industry does have a number of measures in place to fight alcohol abuse and dependency. But it needs to do more, because it is the reason some of those problems exist. The effects of the dop system, which was outlawed in the 1960s but continued well into a democratic South Africa, can still be felt today. 

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The system of partially paying workers with alcohol was a way to control them through alcohol dependency. But it also cut costs for wine farmers, by reducing an oversupply of product in a country that is one of the biggest wine exporters in the world. In the mines, alcohol was cynically used to create a numb workforce that would never escape the clutches of one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. 

Banning the system without tackling alcohol dependency was always going to be a challenge, because it’s not as easy as turning off a switch. And the “fightback” from some farmers, through continuing with the system undercover, wasn’t surprising because at the heart of this is corporate greed. 

The dependency meant that when the system was outlawed, and some of the farmers obeyed the law, the workers still spent a large portion of their meagre salaries to acquire alcohol, continuing the vicious cycle. This didn’t just hurt the workers, it also harmed their babies. The Western Cape and Northern Cape, where the dop system was prevalent, were – and remain – large contributors to South Africa having the highest levels of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the world. 

Shameless manipulation

The wine industry is notorious for how badly it treats its workers, with some working long hours in terrible conditions while earning peanuts. That’s why it was alarming when experts said, without flinching or any shame, that the wine industry was losing R45 million a week during the first alcohol sales ban between late March and June last year. They went on to say that this period saw the industry lose R18 billion. The question is then: if the industry makes so much money, why doesn’t it treat its workers with dignity and pay them a living wage? 

The dop system is just one of many examples of alcohol being used to pacify and control Black people. The notorious Native Beer Act of 1908 ensured that African people funded their own oppression and marginalisation. The act gave municipalities the sole right to brew beer, taking away a key source of income from women who were the main suppliers of sorghum beer. African people were forced to drink the municipalities’ brews in beer halls following the government’s decision to bar them from freely purchasing beer, wine and spirits – reserving that “privilege” for white people, and later “educated people”. The money the municipalities made because of the act went towards maintaining hostels, opening more beer halls and policing African people through the various laws that practically made their existence a crime.  

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It’s interesting to note the faces of the people that the SAB and the rest of the industry have paraded in their calls to lift the ban, because it is having a devastating impact on workers and jobs. They are the same faces who earn crumbs from this multibillion-rand industry. The alcohol industry needs to stop “caring” about workers only when it impacts profits. The margins of some of these companies show that they could cushion some of the financial effects on their workers if they were so inclined. 

What we have seen from this alcohol ban – from the impact responsible drinking can have on the country’s healthcare system to the profit margins of alcohol producers – should be a turning point in addressing alcohol abuse in South Africa and ensuring that the people who work in the industry are treated and paid better.   

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