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Covid-19 lockdown has enabled us to imagine the possibility of an alcohol-free South Africa

Picture:Tracey Adams/African News Agency(ANA)

Picture:Tracey Adams/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Apr 17, 2020


With the rise of Covid-19 infection numbers, the government had to impose strict measures including the national lockdown, in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. 

International flights were suspended. Shops and businesses were closed except those that render essential goods. Public transport was halted, and a provision was only made for essential transport services to continue - during specified times. 

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Since alcohol is not considered essential goods as per the amended regulations to the Disaster Management Act, it cannot be purchased during the national lockdown. 

The decision to temporally ban the selling of alcohol was received with mixed reactions, with some arguing that alcohol should be considered essential goods. Others celebrated the decision to an extent that they called for an alcohol-free South Africa, suggesting that alcohol should be permanently banned.

Without a doubt, Covid-19 has forced us to ponder critical questions. For instance, is an alcohol-free South Africa possible? If yes, who stands to benefit? What are the effects of continued alcohol consumption, particularly to the poor and the marginalised? 

Alcohol intake in South Africa is on the rise. The World Health Organization (WHO) has graded South Africa in a top ten of world’s drunkest country. According to WHO the country is ranking at number six when it comes to alcohol consumption. 

There are several factors that contribute to the increase in alcohol intake. Such as “clever” advertising. Alcohol through advertising is now associated with status and wealth. Drinking is more fashionable than before, especially among the youth. It has become a social norm and for many youngsters, it is perceived as a way to fit in. 

While for others alcohol is used as a means to escape negative thoughts and anxiety. 

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For many poor South Africans drinking is associated with elevating a positive mood. They use intoxicating substances with an intention to deal with posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems, some that they are not even aware of. Alcohol for them is a coping mechanism to deal with their daily misery. 

Contrary to alcohol advertisements, there is not even a single benefit of drinking alcohol. Health practitioners argue that overconsumption of alcohol causes kidney, liver and brain damage. 

The World Health Organization says that alcohol abuse is responsible for the deaths of more than three million people annually. Which means it accounts for 5% of the global disease burden. They further argued that out of those that die due to alcohol abuse, up to 75% are males.

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Multiple research has confirmed that there is a link between alcohol and domestic abuse. Several violent crimes are related to alcohol abuse. 

For this reason, I was not surprised when some people celebrated the temporary ban on alcohol. They did so with the assumption that the ban may result in the reduction of domestic violence and other crimes related to alcohol use. Such was not entirely the case.

Instead, there was an increase in reported gender-based violence cases. At last count, the reported GBV cases were sitting at 87 000, while a general decrease in serious and violent crimes was recorded.

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So, is it possible to extend the ban on alcohol sales and consumption to create a permanently alcohol-free South Africa?

From 1920 to 1933 women’s movements and Protestant churches were at the forefront of calls for the total banning of alcohol. 

History tells us that prohibition had devastating consequences. 

There was a general increase in alcohol abuse, but there was also the stigmatization of alcoholics and rapid growth in organised crime. The demand for illegal alcohol was high and criminals sold it at inflated prices.

Similar instances are beginning to unfold at Umlazi, where I am spending the lockdown. Alcohol is sold despite the temporary ban. 

A litre of black label beer that costs R19 is sold at R35. A bottle of Heineken that costs R25 is sold at R30 and a bottle of Smirnoff that costs R139 is sold at R250. 

The demand is very high. Police and soldiers have failed to disrupt the operations of criminal syndicates selling alcohol and or stem the consumption thereof. 

It is therefore clear that a mere ban on alcohol cannot be a solution. 

Professor Charles Parry of the Medical Research Council proclaimed that rich South Africans drink more frequently but in lesser quantities. Conversely, poor South Africans will ordinarily engage in heavy drinking over weekends, which is a very dangerous drinking pattern. 

It is an undisputed fact that alcohol has played, and continues to play, a pivotal role in destroying black communities. This is a reality that must come to an end. Black communities owe it to themselves to self-correct. 

This, in turn, calls for the creation of a new kind of man. A man that must battle moral disintegration among black people by maintaining and upholding high ethical standards to thyself. 

This is not said from a Christian liberal moralistic perspective, but rather from the understanding and the appreciation of the fact that for any marginalised group to triumph they need their bodies, minds, spirits and souls in good health. 

Therefore, alcohol has no positive contribution to make in shaping the new man. Instead, it could be a setback to the creation of such men. 

The government must ban the advertisements of alcohol thorough posters and billboards in the townships and rural areas. It must put into place restrictions on alcohol selling and consumption, beginning with legislating a law that prohibits the selling of alcohol to persons under the age of 21 years. 

Young people must equally play their part in advocating for the use of alcohol to be discontinued because from their ranks future leaders will emerge. They cannot afford to inherit a drunken country with drunken leaders. 

The coronavirus outbreak has enabled us to imagine the possibility of an alcohol-free South Africa. It has allowed us to reflect on the devastating effects alcohol has on black poor communities. Now the onus is on us to deal with alcohol abuse post-Covid-19.

* Bonginkosi Khanyile is a youth and #Fees Must Fall activist currently under 3 years house arrest.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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