No getting carried away as alcohol ban is relaxed

By , 2 February 2021



Swartland Chenin Blanc – Damascene’s harvest is under way.

It seems only appropriate that the easing of the third alcohol ban related to combating the spread of Coronavirus should coincide to the day with the South African wine industry’s 362nd anniversary – we know the exact date on which the local wine industry began thanks to the 2 February 1659 diary entry of Jan van Riebeeck, an official of the Dutch East India Company and First Commander of the Cape: ‘Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.’

As has been widely publicised recently, it is not a happy time for the industry. There have been some 20 weeks altogether of alcohol bans since the first lockdown was declared in March 2020, this amounting to an overall loss of more than R8 billion in direct sales revenue, according to industry body Vinpro. Furthermore, the industry currently has more than 640 million litres of stock of which 300 million is uncontracted. To put this into perspective, the total volume of South Africa’s wine exports last year was 319.2 million litres. With this year’s harvest now underway, a rather large surplus looms…

It sometimes seems as if it’s the end of the ages but truth be told, SA wine has always been extraordinarily tumultuous. Consider, for instance, that although a quarter of the Cape’s vines were destroyed by phylloxera during the 1890s, replanting was so enthusiastic and the resulting grape surplus so large that in 1918 the Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika (KWV) came into being – a ‘super co-operative’ formed with full government backing. For decades, overall regulation gave incentives on the basis of volume, rather than price, with obvious implications for quality.

More recently, the industry has undergone fundamental structural change and an attendant quality revolution bought about by the end of apartheid.  On the one hand, KWV had to relinquish its statutory powers while on the other, the re-opening of export markets attracted new investment – the number of primary grape growers decreased dramatically from 4 786 in 1991 to 2 778 at present while several new, independently owned farms and cellars were established, the current number of wineries at 533.

What happens next? With no real sense of how long Covid-19 will continue to take its toll, it is interesting to note that Vinpro feels that “it must… ensure that our industry is not again switched on and off nationwide like a light switch by government, regardless of variation in Covid-19 status in the respective provinces” and hence will go ahead with the court application that was launched in the Cape High Court on 27 January, seeking relief which would afford the Premier of the Western Cape the power to control the sale of liquor in the province. A third wave of infections must be a probability, if not an inevitability, and however clumsy the alcohol ban has proved, it is not clear what other measures the national government has when it comes to ensuring sufficient hospital capacity to treat patients.

Unfortunately, it seems there is an element of “Us vs Them” to how the wine industry and the national government have interacted over the course of the Coronavirus crisis. Nearly 27 years after the first free and fair elections, it cannot be denied that the domestic market remains under-developed, labour conditions are still an issue, especially for casual workers, and the industry has made only partial moves towards meaningful black ownership – it therefore cannot come as a complete surprise that the industry has so little leverage with the national government.

Moreover, it is not too far-fetched to regard the alcohol ban as not just heavy-handed and badly thought out but rather rooted in a paternalist desire by black leaders to rescue ordinary people from the ravages of history that very much includes alcohol dependency as Jonny Steinberg, Professor of African Studies at Oxford University, put it in a column last year.

In any event, you’d have to be extremely bloody-minded to argue that South Africa does not have a problematic relationship with alcohol, misuse heavily implicated in domestic violence and drunk driving. It is therefore encouraging that there finally seems to be an acknowledgement that a meaningful conversation needs to be had about creating a healthier alcohol culture. In its latest media release, Vinpro speaks of “remain[ing] committed to finalising a social compact, which includes other liquor sectors, government and civil society, to collaboratively find more sustainable solutions to social problems around alcohol abuse and to change behaviour over the long term”.

Advocacy in words but not backed by deeds will not suffice. Policy interventions are not difficult to imagine – an increase in the minimum age for purchasing and consuming alcohol from 18 to 21, all alcoholic products to pass a mandatory quality test and a limit on what a private individual can buy at any one time are just some suggestions – these need to be debated, agreed upon by all stakeholders and then implemented. It’s a process that needs to begin immediately unless prohibition and other extreme state behaviour become the order of the day.


23 comment(s)

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    John | 3 February 2021

    Kai Barron, Debbie Bradshaw et al address this issue in a paper published on November 11, 2020. To my knowledge this is the only scientific paper that specifically looks at the ban and the curfew and attempts to disaggregate them. The authors conclude that the original five week ban led to a decrease of 740 unnatural deaths. Here’s the key bit for your argument: “We consider the curfew as having had a largely secondary influence on mortality.”

    GillesP | 2 February 2021

    I would suggest as a best option to ban alcohol advertising on TV. As a foreigner living in SA, and even though I am working in the industry, I am shocked by the amount of liquor advertising on TV. I have also found out that the cost of TV spots is ridiculously low here in comparison to other countries, so evidently, for the big players in the industry, this cost is a bargain.

    Jeffrey Green | 2 February 2021

    This debate over whether social problems and crimes related to alcohol abuse have increased during the pandemic has been raised in Canada too. The evidence is so far mainly anecdotal and the proponents tend to have a puritanical streak at the best of times. I would be interested to learn what types of alcohol beverage seem to be the predominant source of the problems in S.A. I seriously doubt that the fine wines produced in the Western Cape play a significant part.. I grew up under a regime in western Canada that required one to be 21 in order to purchase or drink alcohol beverages. This was never a problem for those in the 16 to 21 age group who wanted to have a beer or two. There was always someone who could get it for you. I expect this also applies to S.A. We are having a terrible time over here with the near-fatal damage that Pandemic rules and regulations have done to our hospitality businesses and workers. I am very sorry that the government in S.A. seems to have unnecessarily included all types of wine in the alcohol bans.

    Nick Koornhof | 2 February 2021

    Well said Christian. I would really like to see serious new proposals to curb alcohol misuse. You are making good proposals in your closing paragraphs I hope Vinpro leads the way and table a new fresh proposals ( and it will be controversial) , it is time for the Wine Industry to dominate this debate.

    michael neebe | 2 February 2021

    Dear Christian
    To be quite frank, longstanding rules & regulations required to “protect” ourselves from alcohol evils are in place. I am not going to get into what’s right and wrong about our industry nor will I be party to accepting any complicity to any newly deemed wrong by association – we are talking known/existing remedies.

    Apart from some fundamental social problems in our society, the lack of enforcement of alcohol regulations is a sure-fire way to enable and encourage bad behaviour. You only have to look generally at how our SA Police force has deteriorated into an organisation, nowadays happily instructed by a self-important bully who has no common sense.

    Lockdown SA style has been an unpicking of the fabric of our society – and it appears to have been done with a certain amount of glee by some who are in office. Let me say this here and now – I as a legitimate wine producer will not for one second be accepting responsibility for the inability of SAPS to do their job. I am however mindful of the real impact of all sorts of senseless trauma on our precious hospital beds – but blaming an entire industry for societal shortcomings out of our control is akin to a submissive knee jerk.

    Tim James | 2 February 2021

    I appreciated your thoughtful contribution to what should be a continuing debate, Christian – and well spotted with the date! As Michael says, there is a need to enforce the current legislation before embarking on more. But, in his never-tiring refusal to find even the occasional good intention in the “dirigiste” post-apartheid regime, Michael’s parallel to blaming car manufacturers for bad driving is a touch confusing. His point, and the evasion and the social tenor, would have been clearer if he’d used the parallel that would have been obvious in the USA, where the Trumpist gun lobby rejects all attempts to control that delightful industry by insisting that it’s a few people rather than millions of guns that are the problem.

    Unfortunately, there are inherent social problems in alcohol (people being people), and control over its use is needed – something recognised pretty well everywhere. And do let’s remember that the problem of alcohol is vastly wider and deeper than its contribution to the trauma wards. Hard to see how enforcing current legislation (or indeed bringing in new) would end the misery of such things as drunken domestic violence or fetal alcohol syndrome, for example. It’s a large social problem, and the answers of the previous regime (with the Cape wine industry as one of it’s staunchest pillars, let’s not forget) were no less partial, and no superior to the fumblings of the present regime, I’d suggest.

      Michael Fridjhon | 2 February 2021

      The justification for licensing the sale of alcohol in South Africa (and elsewhere) is that it is a potentially harmful substance. Properly enjoyed it contributes to quality of life. However, given the risk of abuse, there are regulations in place – regulations which produce hundreds of millions of Rands in licensing income, but which require of the state a commitment to enforce them. Cars, like alcohol, in the hands of an untrained or irresponsible user, are lethal. However, you don’t ban cars when there are road deaths. You make an effort (in theory) to police the regulations. Your introducing an analogy based on Trump’s America and the powerful gun lobby muddies the water. That’s a cheap trick. I expected better of you.

    Melvyn Minnaar | 2 February 2021

    Let’s not fall into the useless stance of the opposition political parties, blaming the bad government for all. If you don’t agree that South Africa has an alcohol problem – and the effects on road violence, in homes and gangster hang-outs –you are denying facts on the ground. Some of the suggestions by Christian are commonsense and been around for a long time. (I’ll add: tax alcohol by volume.) Unfortunately the wine industry has never seriously faced the facts of their product honestly and clear-eyed. Wine producers need to stand up, do more and take a social lead. A label slogan on a wine bottle isn’t an apology for the culture that dates back to the dop system.

    Stewart Gibson | 2 February 2021

    2 February should be declared as the annual South African Wine Day!

      Chris Campbell | 2 February 2021

      Is that because it is the anniversary of the first production or because it’s the first day this year that we have been allowed to buy the stuff?

    Michael Fridjhon | 2 February 2021


    While I agree that the industry does need to understand the role that its product plays in contributing to the social misery of our deeply unequal society (for which the ANC’s policies are more to blame than anything the producers do), your mea culpa is ill-thought out and misplaced. When there are motor accidents a rational state regulates road usage and ensures that those who are behind the wheel know how to drive. In South Africa it has become customary to blame alcohol – the equivalent of blaming motor car manufacturers – instead of usage and poor policing.

    Much of the problem is simply non-existent enforcement: the legislation is there – the police do nothing about it. Take supply of liquor to under-age customers: this is an offence which carries a jail sentence or a fine of up to R500000. Have you ever heard of a prosecution? Our dirigiste government will blithely raise the legal drinking age to 21 instead of doing a decent job policing the current legislation.

    Then there’s your assumption that the drinking ban has led to the reduction in trauma cases. Research has established that it has been the limitation on movement which has achieved this outcome: in countries (US, UK etc) where liquor has been supplied during lockdown but movement has been restricted, the decline in cases exactly tracks the South African experience.

    I’ve no doubt you meant well – but the road to hell is paved with good intentions

      Ashley Westaway | 2 February 2021

      Excellent response Michael! Truth should be spoken to power.

      Neil Tabraham | 2 February 2021

      Michael, you make some relevant and important points, up until the last paragraph where I have to take issue with your assertions. Having just read an article about alcohol related deaths in the UK during lockdown, the figures show there were 5460 deaths due to alcohol from beginning of April up to September 2020, an increase of 16% on previous numbers and the highest since records began. While the UK also has a problem with alcohol, their consumption is significantly lower than South Africa. To put that into perspective, each South African on average consumes nearly 30 litres of neat alcohol per person per year, whereas the UK consumes only 15.6. Using those figures, what would the impact have been in South Africa had the alcohol ban not been introduced?

      South Africa must begin to accept that there needs to be a cultural shift before it could convince government that it’s safe to allow alcohol sales during a time of national emergency. There was much highly publicised furore about a recent beer advert, which was banned because it was deemed to be promoting ‘manliness’. Many thought the ban ridiculous and impeded on free speech or stopped people being true to themselves. However, in a country with serious problems with rape, murder and GBV whereby treating women in that way is considered ‘manly’, is it responsible to allow alcohol to continue to be marketed in the same way? Especially with the undeniable association between alcohol and all types of violence, in particular domestic.

      Yes, police and government need to enforce the existing rules, but, again, to use the UK as an example once more, they didn’t always have such a good record on drink driving. It has taken nearly half a century of changing the culture to a point where drink driving is considered unacceptable. In South Africa, this seems an awful long way off making the job of the police that much harder. I have even heard the bravado around getting away with drink driving that goes back to the idea of ‘manliness’. Another consideration here is also the connection between limitation of movement and not actually driving. This enters the realms of cause and effect; which came first, the chicken or the egg? Alcohol or drink driving? Sure, some research may suggest it was restrictions in movement, others may suggest it was reduced access to alcohol. Either way, as alcohol was banned and there was no test sample to support either assertion, we will never truly know.

      Don’t get me wrong, I think the extent of the ban was wrong and ill-considered, while it punished everyone and the industry for the actions of a few. As such, I’m not blaming alcohol, but it’s time to have those difficult conversations about how alcohol is consumed and the impact it has on the wellbeing of the country. And that must include responsible marketing, better education, stricter enforcement of existing laws and tougher consequences for infringements. As happens in most developed countries, the industry must now take responsibility for itself and stop blaming government when they use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

        Michael Fridjhon | 2 February 2021

        I’m not sure where you are sourcing your statistics. The WHO 2018 figures of per capita consumption for total population aged 15 and above has South Africa in 56th place compared with the UK in 22nd place.

          Neil Tabraham | 3 February 2021

          Michael, through which also uses WHO 2018 data. There would appear to be different measures including official and unofficial consumption, per capita based on entire population and legal drinking age population (although per capita should be per entire population, the term has been used in other demographic profile statistics within the data). I have a CSV file of raw data used in the analysis.

            Duncan | 3 February 2021

            Indeed. The link between alcohol consumption and emergency hospitalisation is incontestable. If we grant curfew was sufficient to sever the connection, it hardly detracts from the larger point.

      Martin Prinsloo | 2 February 2021

      I must agree with Michael on most points as it`s obvious that when a government loses it`s ability to instil good behaviour through competent governance and policing of laws, it resorts to quick fixes.
      Case in point the use of blockades to “catch” people instead of proper policing (signs of a failed state). Also the assumption that the “whole” country has a problem with drinking is a bit much as their are certainly abuse happening in some sections of the population but most are not party to that. Also what is the correlation between poverty and alcohol, thus to blame where it should sit is that if the state fails it`s people, they tend to “drown their sorrows” much as was the case in the old USSR.

      Jabulani Debedu | 2 February 2021

      Hi Michael

      Your response to Christian’s refreshingly balanced take is rather disappointing.

      It is not Christian’s assumption “that the drinking ban has led to the reduction in trauma cases”. Data is freely available showing the burden of alcohol related trauma admission on our health care system. To deny this by invoking irrelevant US / UK observations is just plain silly.

      To further reduce the drinking problem to non-existent enforcement and the failure of the ANC government is simplistic and not helpful. In the Western Cape, where DA governs, alcohol abuse and lack of adequate enforcement is the same as in other ANC governed provinces

      As Neil has correctly pointed out, it would be in the best interest of the alcohol industry to take the lead in collaborating with other stakeholders to address the issue and safeguard its own commercial sustainability.

        Colin | 2 February 2021

        Just a note Jabulani – policing and therefore alcohol law enforcement (even in the DA run Western Cape) is a national matter and falls under the ANC government and all under our best mate Bheki Cele.

          Jabulani Debedu | 3 February 2021


          Any provincial government has influence on SAPS, even though SAPS falls under national government.

          The Metro Police in City of Cape Town and provincial community safety is directly governed by DA. Unless, of course, you think they have no role to play in policing and law enforcement.

        Michael Fridjhon | 2 February 2021

        Jabulani – you may be missing the point about the reduction in trauma admissions. Countries which did not have an alcohol ban saw a drop in trauma admissions because of the lockdown itself. In the UK trauma cases came down 57%. In the US by 54%. In South Africa by 60% This suggests that it wasn’t necessary to ban alcohol sales in South Africa: the reduction came from the lockdown and not the alcohol ban. Incidentally the lockdown also saw a significant drop in contact crime. Less contact crime means fewer hospital trauma admissions

        Carl | 3 February 2021

        I speak of 1st hand experience in the North West. The complete liquor licence system and the enforcement in this province falls woefully short of what is done in the Western Cape. To date the NW LB cannot renew a licence for 2021 (started in November 2020), which in effect is a piece of scribbled paper not worthy of the R500. I can just imagine what it is like in the informal sector.

          Jabulani Debedu | 4 February 2021


          The liquor licensing system is part of a broader problem on the ease of doing business in the country. The Western Cape government should be commended for trying to reduce red tape.

          To be sure, i’m not dismissing the lack of adequate enforcement as contributing factor. I was cautioning against reducing the alcohol problem to only enforcement (the lack thereof) and the ANC government.

          Conversations on addressing the alcohol abuse problem are well overdue. As an avid supporter of our wine industry, it is encouraging to see the industry participating in the conversation. Hopefully this will set the ball rolling on finding sustainable solutions to the problem.

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