(I wrote this for The Star. It appeared in The Star and in the Pretoria News on 19 March 2012.)
In a recent article, Liquor rules: state’s fatal conceit, (The Star 14 March 2012), the Free Market Foundation’s Temba Nolutshungu ends thus: “As far as policymakers are concerned, liquor is a product that should be dealt with just like any other. It is a product that requires responsible handling by consumers and is essential to the wellbeing of the general populace and the nation’s economy.”
Is liquor ‘essential to the wellbeing of the general populace and the nation’s economy’? Air is essential, as are food, water and love. Shelter is essential, and so are good health care, a clean environment and personal safety. If liquor is so essential to the ‘wellbeing’ of the general populace, why are the majority of people in the country teetotallers? Yes, drinkers are a minority in South Africa. The problem is how much that minority drinks per capita. Excessive consumption makes us amongst the highest per capita drinkers in Africa and the world (these are WHO statistics presented at the DTI’s recent National Liquor Conference).
Is it ‘essential’ to the nation’s economy? Would the economy collapse without it or if it was down-scaled? Isn’t the opposite true – that alcohol abuse has serious negative consequences for the economy with lost work hours due to babbelas, lost work hours as a result of the violence perpetrated by drunks on each other and others, wastage of state health resources patching up victims of liquor-related violence, liquor-related crime …. the list goes on.
Mr Nolutshungu argues that the state has a minimal role to play in the management of liquor distribution – this is, he says, best left to the distributors and the consumers. But isn’t one of the duties of the state to act in the best interests of society? In the case of liquor, the state’s responsibility is to ensure that the negative impact of the production and consumption of liquor is minimised. The majority of countries in the world have liquor-specific legislation. Surely this is an indication that, across the globe, liquor is not seen as a product ‘just like any other’, but as one that needs to be managed differently because of the potentially negative social consequences of not doing so.
Mr Nolutshungu cites the abortive attempt by the USA to ban alcohol outright in the Prohibition years as an example of why the state should not intervene. But this is a spurious argument because no-one is arguing for a total ban on alcohol. Government and communities across the country are simply calling for stricter control over the availability of alcohol and for concerted efforts to reduce the levels of consumption.
He also suggests that ‘liquor abuse is not in the interests of producers who constantly appeal to consumers to use their products in moderation’. Firstly, producers and distributors of alcohol do not encourage moderation voluntarily. Secondly, the amount of money they spend on promoting moderation pales in comparison to the amount spent on promoting their products. What’s more, right now, even with laws in place to prohibit such practises, there are liquor distributors, legal and illegal, in areas rich and poor areas, black and white, that are selling to minors and to already intoxicated people. The bottom line is the bottom line – liquor sellers are in business to make money. They won’t voluntarily restrict sales of their product because, as Mr Nolutshungu rightly says, there are people who want to consume it.
As for consumers, we all know that, in general, the more drunk a person is, the less likely he or she is to think logically. Can we expect such a person to exercise moderation?
That’s the problem with leaving control to the distributors and the consumers. They are co-conspirators. The distributor wants to sell as much as possible, the consumer wants to drink as much as possible.
Mr Nolutshungu is concerned about the future of shebeens, illegal outlets which emerged as a response to apartheid restrictions prohibiting economic activity in general and the sale of alcohol in particular by black South Africans. He says today’s government is treating shebeens in the same way as the apartheid state did. ‘Instead of continuing to raid shebeens,’ he says,’ why not normalise the trade? Set objective rules for liquor sellers to follow and let them get on with their businesses in peace.’
Well, that is exactly what government intends to do. In fact, to ‘lift the yoke of illegality’ in Gauteng, a special shebeen permit was introduced in the mid-2000s which allowed illegal outlets to register and thereby legitimise themselves. The plan was, and remains, to draw shebeens into the same licensing framework as all other liquor outlets and so to regularise the market across the board. At the same time, government is looking at how to minimise the negative impact of having liquor outlets in residential areas.
In closing, let me refer to some disturbing statistics published in the Gauteng government’s Draft Liquor Policy in 2011. Comparisons were drawn between two regions in Johannesburg – Region B, which stretches from Rosebank to Randburg, and Region D, which is made up largely of Soweto.
In Region B, which is predominantly white and well-off, there are around 600 people per liquor outlet. In Region D – Soweto – which is still overwhelmingly black, the figure is around 400 people per liquor outlet.
In Region B, there is one recreation facility for every 10 000 people and one library for every 14 000 people. In Region D, the figures are 31 000 people per recreation facility and 66 000 people per library.
This is the true legacy of apartheid – that 18 years into democracy, it is still easier for the black community to get drunk than it is to get access to reading material or to engage in sporting and other recreational activities. If this does not change, the majority of black South Africans will remain condemned to a cycle of poverty, poor education, a lack of access to economic opportunities and to a less than adequate quality of life.
This is one of the most critical reasons why government must take on the role of vigorously regulating liquor while at the same time improving the availability of recreational and learning facilities as alternatives to drinking holes, especially for the youth and the many unemployed in our country who turn to alcohol as an escape from their unhappy existences.