Michael Fridjhon: South Africa and alcohol – what happens next?

By , 17 February 2021

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4th Avenue, Parkhurst, Johannesburg.

A few weeks ago, our esteemed editor broke the industry-wide silence around alcohol and trauma.  There was a flurry of comment and then suddenly the conversation ran out of steam. This may be because it is a polarizing subject, with deeply held views on either side of the spectrum. It may also be because for many the very thought of engaging on the subject is disloyal, if not treasonous.

The issue is not going to go away. At the moment those who believe that South Africa’s fraught relationship with alcohol should be laid squarely at the door of the industry are gathering data to support their views and feeding it to a very receptive ANC. The ruling party – “Divided we stand, United we Fall” – agrees on very little except that alcohol is evil. The idea of hammering the liquor industry is a subject which gets as close as anything to unanimous support.

There are good historical reasons for this. The Apartheid government only brought an end to black prohibition because the revenue potential outweighed whatever considerations had led to its imposition in the first place. Those who grew up in households where alcohol provided an escape from the awfulness of everyday life see the industry as the source of their domestic trauma. Liquor was certainly the immediate cause. Political disempowerment, social dislocation and economic exploitation were the underlying reasons.

However, to suggest to those in power that we are living in a present which they have been responsible for creating is an idea which is never going to gain traction. It suits them to find a unifying scapegoat for their failures to lift the majority of our countrymen out of poverty. Poor policy decisions, a failure to implement reforms and corruption on an unimaginable scale are the real causes. Someone or something must be blamed, and alcohol is a ready-made public enemy number one.

So the industry is not just on unstable ground: it’s neck deep in mud, quicksand and crocodiles. When it suggests that it makes important contributions to the country’s GDP and tax collections, what it sees as a positive message rings horribly like the justification the Nationalist government used to end black prohibition in 1962. In short, a meeting of minds is not on the cards.

There are other assumptions which are some distance removed from reality. One is the wine industry’s belief that it plays no role in the widespread trauma associated with alcohol. This is the “we sell a smart beverage to the middle classes so we can’t be held liable for township violence” line of reasoning. It’s easy to dispose of this, especially now that the government’s lockdowns have contributed to a massive wine surplus. The 250m+ litres of unsold inventory is not going to be emptied into the sewers. It is going to packaged in papsakke and PET bottles and sold for a pittance to consumers whose socio-economic predicament is at least as bad as that of their parents and grandparents. They in turn will use it to escape the awfulness of their everyday lives, and the cycle will continue in a dystopian parody of The Lion King’s Circle of Life.

There’s also the delusion, popular amongst the prohibitionists in government and in organisations like The Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance, that restricting the sale of alcohol will make this problem go away. As with the tobacco bans in the 2020 lockdowns, it’s patently clear to whoever is paying attention that shutting down the legal routes simply facilitates the growth of the illicit sector. Chase liquor underground and it will be even more difficult to control.

So what is to be the solution in this South African version of a Mexican stand-off? Agreeing to talk to each other would be a good start, but it’s not happening. The government appears to think that it can’t be seen to be engaging with the liquor industry. Academics with prohibitionist agendas – like Dr Charles Parry – have openly said that the industry should not have a voice at the policy table.

The minister of police is on record as saying that alcohol was a “curse” and that he hoped that one day there would be no liquor for sale in South Africa. He of course has a different agenda: alcohol is his scapegoat for poor policing. If even a percentage of the trauma cases which the lockdown was intended to address was the result of drunk driving, then his police have not been doing a very good job at arresting intoxicated drivers. Our legal blood alcohol limit is lower than in most European jurisdictions. The problem is not the law – it’s simply that it’s not enforced, except as a means of shaking down motorists. The Global Corruption Barometer Africa has noted that our police are seen as the most corrupt institution in the country.

Then there is the illicit sector: there are vastly more illegal outlets in South Africa than licensed ones. The trauma hotspots are well known. An increased police presence (which the lockdown regulations demanded and which produced palpable results) should not be limited to times of pandemic. Visible policing with proper enforcement may sound a little like an honest day’s work (so not easy to persuade the men in blue to do) but it would make a meaningful difference.

Disrespect of the law is not limited to shebeens and the informal sector. The “strip” in Parkhurst, Johannesburg is rife with outlets supplying alcohol to under-age patrons. The police visited a week or two back to make sure there wasn’t too much crowding indoors. They never asked for the IDs of youthful patrons: since an offence under this section of the Act carries a fine of R1m or a term of five years imprisonment, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that the liquor squad enjoys a lucrative arrangement with the various licensees.

Current legislation, properly enforced, would address many of the issues which contribute to the trauma injuries we all wish to see minimised. The Act prohibits the supply of liquor to anyone who is intoxicated: this means that a barman or a shebeen-keeper must refuse to serve anyone who is over the limit. The law also obliges bottle-store licensees to keep a record of all sales totalling 25 litres (less than three cases) or more. The police ought to be able to identify anyone who buys liquor with a view to re-selling it illicitly. It requires licensees to take steps to verify the age of purchasers.

I don’t think that the industry should try to shift the blame for the country’s toxic relationship with alcohol to some distant era, or to the indisputably incompetent and corrupt police. It pays too little attention to what happens once it’s harvested its grapes and turned them into wine. It takes the view that since it pays the imposts imposed upon it by the fiscus, it’s met its obligations. However, it can’t do what the law was designed to achieve. That’s a ball firmly in Bheki Cele’s court, when he gets round to it.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

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  • Michael Fridjhon19 February 2021

    I totally agree, Francois-Jacques, that the industry stepped up when the Government used lockdown to hide behind its own arcane agendas and ignore those most affected by them. But the industry must assume some duty of care when it comes to what happens to what it produces. For example, you wouldn’t want your wine to be badly stored; you also wouldn’t want it to be sold in papsakke to wreak havoc in the communities where cheap wine is distributed by unscrupulous and often unlicensed traders.

  • Francois-Jacques Malan19 February 2021

    Thanks Michael,

    for once again being the voice of reason. Enforcing laws is the job of law enforcement agencies, anyone else doing so would be a vigilante. – Whose fault is it if the police are chasing after surfers instead of smugglers.
    Just to note that the industry is against total bans, i.e. prohibition, not against stricter regulations. We alone cannot be held responsible or be made a scapegoat for an issue where we don’t even have a seat at the table.
    I must unfortunately disagree with the notion that wine producers believe they met their obligations after paying taxes.
    It was farmers, not government that provided the safety net when everything was shut down last year. The wine and broader agriculture industry (or farmers for that matter) has invested in education and schools; from foundation phase through to university level, safety initiatives, upskilling at work, career development, social development, provide housing and do everything within its limited power to restore dignity to an extraordinary people who have been downtrodden for years. We do not ask for a pat on the back for doing it, just to stop portraying us as aloof/ignorant to these issues when we do more to uplift people than our government has done in years.

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