Sobering up to the facts
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By Kizito Okechukwu
I was inspired to write this piece after receiving a call from a tavern owner **Siya** in Soweto, Johannesburg, who sought my opinion on the government’s recent ban on alcohol. I first ascertained whether he was engaging me as an alcohol trader or as a concerned citizen. He answered as both, so I responded to both.
As an alcohol trader, I empathised with Siya, given that he’s losing his sole source of income, which not only feeds his family, but pays his half a dozen staff members. My empathy went even further, as he had borrowed funds to buy extra stock to cater for the expected demand of the New Year’s Eve celebrations, which ended up gathering not only dust on his shelves, but interest payable to his bank loan.
From a concerned citizen perspective, I told him that I occasionally do drink alcohol and enjoy collecting it, specifically when friends and family quiz me about what gifts I prefer for special occasions. Recently, I have found myself enjoying a few tiny quaffs of liquor I have received as birthday gifts over the years. But this is the exception, not the norm. Maybe it’s to take my mind off the constant burden of the day’s lockdown or the new, unwelcome load-shedding schedule.
In conversation, I also told the tavern owner that a good friend of mine, who tutored me into becoming a whisky connoisseur, passed away seven years ago because of some alcohol-related road accident involving several cars on the freeway. Funnily, some friends ask why I collect liquor, but don’t consume it as much – and what’s to become of it when I pass on. Maybe my family and friends should have a wine and whisky tasting at my funeral - I don’t know? I have a funny tag near those collection that simply says ‘’Alcohol may not solve your problem, but neither will water or milk”.
On a more serious note, the alcohol ban is a huge conundrum. If one thinks back to the Prohibition-era in the USA, which was a huge failure on government’s part and saw the rise of infamous mobsters Al Capone and Lucky Luciano – who made millions upon millions of tax-free dollars selling booze as bootleggers. Now, one can also find our very own local bootleggers – even online, selling alcohol at massively inflated prices. As fast as any prohibition arrives, so too does the black market.
But our focus should be on the many small to medium sized traders, which are seriously considering trading alcohol illicitly. But not to enrich themselves into early tax-free retirement, but to simply survive to feed their families and those of their staff members.
By now, we’re all aware that the alcohol ban lessens trauma cases in hospitals, freeing up pandemic-related beds for those that need them most. Yet a key area of concern is that the hospitality industry has also suffered massive economic trauma. Many restaurants, bars and traders have been forced to close their doors, causing not only total loss of income, but severe psychological strain, such as anxiety and depression. And wine farms are not immune, seeing closures and job losses becoming much more frequent - and even thousands of litres of wine, which has expired, having to be quite literally poured down the drain.
Big industry players like South African Breweries, Heineken and others have been forced to cancel planned investments and may even cut jobs - which South Africa simply cannot afford. Recent stats suggest that almost R15bn in sales has been lost since the first ban and thousands of jobs.
We have to find equilibrium. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance. So we need to look at it from both sides.
How do we support entrepreneurs whose income streams have been decimated by the ban? As importantly, how do we build a national community that can consume alcohol responsibly and respectfully of the people around them? This conundrum calls for innovative ways to find the equilibrium. Whatever the solution may be, we can call on small to medium businesses to come up with solutions.
As they say, alcohol may not solve your problem, but neither will water or milk. Blanket banning may not solve our alcohol dilemma in the long term, but the need for robust industry and community engagement must be front and centre now – especially to get our unemployed young people into the job market (who are also now becoming increasingly more prone to depression and alcohol abuse) and ensure that they too can make a proud and meaningful contribution in their communities, which will help reduce the many ills we face in our society today.
In closing, my heart goes out to the many tavern owners like Siya, his family and staff.
My heart also goes out to the thousands of overworked frontline workers and pandemic patients – and their families.
Let’s stay strong!
Kizito Okechukwu is the co-Chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) Africa; 22 on Sloane is Africa’s largest startup campus.
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