The narrative around the ban of alcohol in South Africa during lockdown has become complex and obscured. So many layers have been added and issues interweaved, that the topic in itself has polarised both friends and foe, says Carmen van Niekerk, excise manager at South African Breweries (SAB).
South Africa is currently operating under level 4 lockdown regulations, which bans the sale and distribution of alcohol. That will change once the regulations are relaxed to level 3.
The country’s largest brewer, along with numerous industry bodies have lamented the potential fallout from the country’s stringent lockdown laws – most notably the thousands of potential job losses.
SAB previously warned that if it is forced to work at reduced capacity for four months, it could result in a loss of 2,000 jobs, while an additional 75,000 jobs could be adversely affected by the company’s supply chain.
Van Niekerk bursts five myths about the current alcohol ban in the country:
Myth #1: The ban on alcohol sales in SA means nobody has been drinking during lockdown
The ban in South Africa is on the sale of alcohol, and has not placed a prohibition on the consumption of alcohol. “So if you had it, could find it – or steal it – or even make it yourself, you could drink it,” said Van Niekerk.
“The consumption of alcohol has therefore not stopped during the last 50+ days of lockdown – the millions of photos on social media of people having a drink is evidence enough that this has been the reality over the last seven weeks.”
Myth #2: The alcohol sales ban stopped the trade of alcohol
Van Niekerk said that we all know someone that has somehow managed to obtain alcohol during the lockdown. “Social media has been buzzing with reports of people complaining about exorbitant prices or even being hoodwinked – paying good money for a bottle of vinegar instead of gin for example.”
Edward Kieswetter, the SARS commissioner confirmed last week that alcohol is still being sold and that the illicit trade of alcohol is thriving.
Darren Swerksy, the managing director of the PicardiRebel Group in an interview with Channel Africa on 14 May, agreed with this, stating that: “The government’s belief that there’s no liquor consumption is not true. This illicit liquor is genuine liquor. It’s being sold out of closed restaurants and bars who are on their knees… it’s being sold out of taverns…”
He highlighted the number of break-ins – both successful and foiled – that they have seen at their own stores during lockdown.
“So yes, the legal trade of alcohol has stopped, but the underground trade of alcohol has been growing and thriving in recent weeks,” said Van Niekerk.
Myth #3: Reduction in crime in SA is due to the ban on alcohol
South Africa has reported a significant reduction in crime rates since the lockdown commenced at the end of March. The latest statistics covering the period 29 March – 20 April 2020 indicated that murders reduced by 72%, rape by 87.2%, assault dropped by 85.2% and attempted murder was down by 65.9%.
“Despite claims that reductions in crime are related to alcohol prohibition in South Africa, it is apparent that these positive trends are also taking place in countries where the sale of alcohol has not been prohibited, and even in some countries where alcohol sales have been actively supported,” said Van Niekerk.
She said that South Africa is one of only four countries that have implemented a national ban on alcohol sales during lockdown. The other three countries are Sri Lanka, Botswana and Panama.
The similar trends seen across countries with and without alcohol prohibition suggest that social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders (lockdowns) are the key drivers of reduced criminal activity, Van Niekerk said.
This early evidence suggests that conclusions about the effectiveness of alcohol prohibitions during COVID-19 are premature and unjustified. The BBC concluded in an article on crime in Canada and the United states, that “The result of less people in public is less crime”.
Latin America is the region with the highest homicide rates in the world outside of war, noted Van Niekerk. The New York Times reported on 11 April that this region has seen a significant reduction in criminality and violence during lockdown.
In El Salvador, murders reduced by almost half in February and March, while in Argentina, robberies fell by nearly 90%. Colombia reported a 55% drop in homicides; 86% drop in assaults and 90% drop in robberies during 1 week in March alone – this is despite the ongoing drug wars in regions of Colombia, Van Niekerk said.
“Links to lower crime rates cannot necessarily be blamed entirely on alcohol bans as various government and news articles in South Africa suggest. Crime rates in terms of illicit sales have increased, and crime rates for other crimes have decreased based on travel freedom restrictions. Again, no direct and clear correlation is provided.
“The common denominator between South Africa and the above comparisons, is therefore not the availability of alcohol, but the fact that the lockdown restricted public gatherings and the movement of people coupled with increased law enforcement on the streets.”
Myth #4: Reduction in hospital activity in SA is solely due to the ban on alcohol
Reductions in hospital activity have been reported in many countries around the world, both in countries that have prohibited alcohol as part of their lockdown orders and in countries that have not restricted access, noted Van Niekerk.
Kenya and Canada haven’t banned alcohol sales during lockdown, yet Kenya reported “very few patients” and Canadian trauma doctors state that trauma cases relating to sexual assault and partner violence “are way, way, way, way down”.
“As is with the case of crime, fingering the ban of alcohol as the sole reason for a reduction of trauma cases by two thirds in South Africa is irrational,” Van Niekerk said.
Editors emeritus of the SA Medical Journal Prof Dan Ncayiyana and Prof JP van Niekerk stated that “the much-touted benefits of the alcohol ban of reducing alcohol-related injury admissions – independent of the larger impact of the lockdown itself – has not been demonstrated, and relies instead on beliefs in what may be the classic case of confirmation bias”.
Myth #4: South Africa is unique so you cannot compare us to other countries
“We can’t look to other countries as a reliable comparison – as South Africa is unique,” Van Niekerk admitted. “While there is no denying that South Africa is special, we aren’t as unique as we would like to believe,” she said.
Looking at factors such as inequality, wealth levels, crime rates, levels of health care and alcohol consumption, it is evident that South Africa is in fact fairly comparable in many aspects to its Latin American counterparts and some African neighbours, Van Niekerk said.
“Although there are a myriad of factors that make us different, the above, without a doubt, shows that South Africa is not beyond comparison on the point of reduced crime rates and hospital admissions in other countries in lockdown.”
Where to from here?
Van Niekerk said that even with a stringent lockdown underway, the reality is that Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon.
“Government has indicated that the risk-adjusted phasing out of our lockdown is expected to last at least 6-8 months. However, it will take much longer to unwind the damage done to the legal liquor industry as a result of the alcohol ban.
“In order to destabilise the foothold the illicit traders have obtained in the market during the time that the ban has been in place, the sales of legal alcohol needs to open as wide and as quickly as is both safe and possible,” the excise manager said.
The very limited off-trade sales of alcohol being considered under Level 3 will do little to address the ongoing illicit trade, Van Niekerk stressed.
“More concerning is that it is not nearly enough to start alleviating the financial burden that has been carried by the legal alcohol industry over the last excruciating 9 weeks, starting mid-March when the first trade restrictions were implemented.”
She said that as a pillar of the South African economy, and custodians of more than 250 000 South African livelihoods, SAB as one of the largest players in the market is committed to working with government to find a solution that both obeys social distancing and puts food on the table for millions of South Africans.
“It’s time to reassess what we think we know about the ban on alcohol sales in South Africa and have a sober look at the facts. We can still flatten the curve, but we don’t have to flatten our economy.”