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The State must work with businesses to survive a fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic

Shebeens and taverns have relationships with communities that the government can leverage by working with the sector, says the writer. Picture: Ross Jansen/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Shebeens and taverns have relationships with communities that the government can leverage by working with the sector, says the writer. Picture: Ross Jansen/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Dec 9, 2021


By Lucky Ntimane

John Sithole is the owner of Sithole’s Place, which he started in 2006.

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With the help of the South African Liquor Traders Association, he managed to get a licence for his tavern.

This has allowed him to operate within the law. But the joy was short-lived when the sale, dispensing and distribution of alcohol was stopped during the first lockdown.

Since then, like tens of thousands of shebeen and tavern owners, Sithole has struggled to make ends meet.

Despite following all of the Covid-19 regulations strictly, such as making sure that all patrons sanitise their hands before entering the premises, that they are wearing their masks properly and that they stick to the social distancing areas marked out on the floor of the tavern with sticky tape, the State still hamstrung businesspeople like Sithole with the decision to halt the sale of alcohol during the first lockdown.

At one stage he did not know where his daily meals would come from, let alone money to pay for the core operating costs and to meet family needs such as paying the monthly fees for the burial society.

Sithole has no intentions of flouting the Covid-19 rules, but the impact of that initial decision to stop the trade of alcohol could have crippled his business. Now that we are on the verge of a fourth wave of Covid-19, Sithole is nervous about what lurks in the near future as far as the State policy is concerned regarding the sale, dispensing and distribution of alcohol.

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Mable Sithole (no relation) is the owner of Meizo’s Place in Kalkfontein. Her tavern narrowly survived the economic hardship we experienced during the first wave of Covid-19, only for it to almost close down during the second wave of the pandemic here in South Africa.

She talks about the guilt she felt at the imminent closing she had faced. Not only does she rely on the tavern as her main source of income, but she also employs many community members to work for her. The tavern is their bread and butter as much as it is her family’s. Fortunately, she survived, but she is concerned about the State’s possible policy interventions now that we face a fourth wave of the pandemic.

Like most tavern owners, Mable is a black woman over the age of 50. She talks about the psychological pressure of maintaining the fledgling business during this time knowing, she says, that at her age it would be difficult to enter the world of work in the event that her business collapses. Already she feels the strain of not being able to help out family members in distress and all of this, collectively, leads to both economic and psychosocial challenges.

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This leads us to a cluster of questions. What should the government do in the event of the fourth wave getting out of hand? Would it be worthwhile to again temporarily stop the sale, dispensing and distribution of alcohol? How does one strike a balance between the public health imperative of keeping the country safe from this deadly virus while not crippling an already bruised and battered economy? Can both be achieved?

On a conservative estimate based on the sales figures from liquor manufacturers, shebeens and taverns contribute roughly between R60 billion and R70 billion per annum to the South African economy.

Given that the economy is growing at less than 2% per annum and that new unemployment figures suggest that 47% of South African adults of working age are unemployed (based on the expanded definition), the economy is not resilient enough to withstand the structural impact of another economic shutdown. The contribution of every sector of the economy to our overall GDP is crucial to ensuring that we survive the negative structural impact of the pandemic on our economic well-being.

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Ensuring that liquor trading continues is not only about securing the livelihoods of tavern owners like John Sithole and Mabel Sithole and their employees, but also about ensuring that the State is able to raise much-needed taxes from these businesses to allow the fiscus to scaffold the poorest of the poor, who are desperately dependent on a caring and responsive State for social security during Covid-19. If shebeens and taverns do not operate, then SA Inc. shoots itself in the foot by closing an important source of revenue for the State.

That said, the industry needs to do its bit to help in the efforts to curb the impact of Covid-19. Fortunately, this is being role-modelled and can yet be scaled up in partnership with the government. At Mike’s Place in Mamelodi, for example, more than 500 liquor traders took part in a vaccination drive. At Rands in Khayelitsha, more than 1 000 traders and patrons rocked up to be vaccinated.

Shebeens and taverns have relationships with communities that the government can leverage by working with the sector. It does not have to be a relationship filled with tension, but one that can and must develop for the collective benefit of the country. We can grow the economy and deal Covid-19 a massive blow simultaneously.

* Ntimane is convener of the National Liquor Traders.

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