South Africa: The Struggle over COVID-19 Alcohol Sales Ban

The South African government has introduced a total alcohol sales ban to reduce risks of COVID-19 and alleviate alcohol’s heavy burden on the healthcare systen. A struggle has ensued over the ban between public health and safety experts and the alcohol industry.

Starting in the beginning of April, South Africa went into testing a three week alcohol ban in the country. Health and safety experts in the country support the ban for several reasons. As the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in South Africa (SAAPA SA) explains, these reasons include the following:

  1. Alcohol use threatens physical distancing and personal hygiene measures needed to reduce the spread of the virus.
  2. Many citizens in the country have already weakened immune systems and alcohol is proven to weaken the immune system. The virus attacks people with weak immune systems more strongly.
  3. Alcohol fuels violence and banning alcohol sales reduces domestic violence.
  4. Alcohol control measures play a significant role in “breaking the coronavirus chain”.
  5. The alcohol ban can reduce stress on emergency services. Already limiting the number of alcohol sales hours has lead to a dramatic decrease in alcohol related problems, according to community police forum reports.

The alcohol ban after showing positive results was extended till May 2020, along with the extension on the lockdown measures in the country. 

The alcohol ban works

Days after implementing the alcohol sales and transportation ban, the South African Police Department already started reporting significant benefits for society due to the ban.

Analysing the crime and comparing the first week of the lockdown to the same period in 2019, Police Minister Bheki Cele confirmed that:

  • Murder cases had dropped from 326 to 94.
  • Rape cases dropped from 699 to 101.
  • Cases of assault with intention to inflict grievous bodily harm, dropped from 2,673 to 456.
  • Trio crimes (Car/truck hijacking, business robberies, and house robberies) dropped from 8,853 to 2,098.

The Minister says the public is also starting to understand lockdown measures more and complying with regulations and supporting law enforcement authorities.

Troubling developments

Epidemic of gender-based violence

There continues to be a high number of cases of gender-based violence. The police continues to receive a high number of complaints. During the lockdown period there were 2300 complaints with only 148 suspects being charged for their crime.

The Minister of police had predicted an increase in gender-based violence with the declaration of the state of emergency due to COVID-19 on March 15, 2020. The Minister at that time urged the management of the SAPS to reinforce the FCS Units (Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences) at police stations to ensure the SAPS readiness and capacity to respond to related complaints.

This underlines the necessity of the alcohol ban so as to at least reduce alcohol-related violence, which often makes up the majority of cases.

Illegal alcohol sales

The Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in South Africa (SAAPA SA) have warned about the need to take action against illegal alcohol sales during the alcohol ban and lockdown measures. For example products like Alomo Bitters are sold by outlets without liquor licences such as spaza shops. These are imported products, usually brought into the country illegally, that are made of a mix of herbs and have around 42% alcohol content. They are sold, inter alia, in 50ml sachets for R5.

SAAPA SA calls for action to be taken against these products as well to ensure the alcohol ban is enforced comprehensively.

Big Alcohol threatening the alcohol ban

SAB Miller trucks delivering alcohol worth over R13 Million were stopped on April 8, 2020. According to the alcohol ban, the transportation as well as sale of alcohol is prohibited. 

The drivers were fined by police, with six employees arrested, including three truck drivers.

However, SAB Miller has since stated they were not delivering the said alcohol for sale, but moving them into a storage facility off-site. They have claimed to have permits for the move and shared these with the police.

Meanwhile, the South African Big Alcohol lobby is pressuring the government to lift the alcohol ban and allow alcohol sales during the lockdown. The industry is lobbying to open up alcohol outlets and taverns to sell alcohol for takeaway and have restricted hours of 9am to 6pm on weekdays, and till 4pm on Saturdays and not at all on Sundays and public holidays.

Lifting the alcohol ban and allowing people to go out to buy alcohol – a non-essential item – defeats the purpose of having a lockdown, as it will increase people gathering and the chances of the virus spreading.

Contradicting themselves, the alcohol industry is calling to ban only on-premise sale and promotions to improve physical distancing and safety measures while allowing for people to come and buy alcohol for takeaway. It seems the industry is just looking to safeguard their profit interest even during this pandemic where people’s lives are at-risk. 

South African opposition party rejects calls for lifting the alcohol ban

Even South Africa’s opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has rejected calls for the ban on alcohol sales during the COVID-19 lockdown to be lifted.

The party issued a statement after liquor stores were ransacked ahead of Easter weekend. Arrests have also been made against taverns and individuals selling alcohol during the lockdown and breaking the lockdown alcohol ban.

It [call to lift the alcohol ban] is a call not based on scientific rationale, as there is nothing essential about alcohol and it will only serve a destructive purpose at a time when we all need to practice maximum discipline and self-control,” said the EFF party statement, as per Nehanda Radio.

The statement has reiterated that the link between alcohol and violent crime has been proven and is evident from the drop in the crime rate according to recently released statistics. It is essential to continue the ban as lifting it would mean a spike in violent crime and victims who are confined in close proximity to the alleged perpetrators being unable to access the assistance and help they need.

The alcohol ban is a necessity for South Africa considering the proven negative effects of alcohol on the immune system and alcohol’s part in fueling violence and specifically gender-based and domestic violence. The World Health Organization has also recommended avoiding alcohol consumption during this time period.

For further reading from the blog:

“The Case for – and Obstacles to – Policy Action To Tackle South Africa’s Alcohol Burden”

by Aadielah Maker Diedericks

The Case for – and Obstacles to – Policy Action To Tackle South Africa’s Alcohol Burden

Sources:

The South African: “SA’s alcohol ban explained: Why booze is barred during lockdown

South African Police Service: “Police Minister welcomes the decrease in serious and violent crimes since the lockdown – Media Statement, Ministry of Police

Eye Witness News: “SAB DENIES BREAKING LOCKDOWN RULES AFTER BOOZE TRUCKS STOPPED

Nehanda Radio: “EFF rejects calls to lift ban on alcohol sales during Covid-19 lockdown

Business Insider South Africa: “The SA liquor industry’s plan to get booze back on sale: let taverns do takeaways until 6PM