South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced a review of alcohol laws.
The alcohol sales bans during the pandemic led to substantial decreases in hospital trauma admissions, crime and violence in the country. The sales bans demonstrate the potential to promote health and development through alcohol policy in South Africa.

Speaking at the ANC party’s 109th anniversary celebrations held virtually on January 8, 2021, President Ramaphosa called for a review of South African alcohol laws. The review was named a key priority for the government in 2021 along with COVID-19 prevention.

South Africa enforced three alcohol sales bans to contain the spread of COVID-19 and ease the burden on healthcare systems resulting from alcohol-related harm. The first sales ban was lifted on June 1, 2020; the second sales ban was enforced from July 13 to August 17, 2020 and the latest alcohol sales ban was enforced on December 28, 2020 and is set to continue to February 15, 2021.

All three alcohol sales bans lead to significant reductions in alcohol-related hospitalizations, crime and accidents during the period of the ban, which substantially reduced the pressure on the healthcare system and emergency services during the pandemic.

For example, the latest alcohol ban led to a drop in trauma cases linked to alcohol by 47% on weekends and by 58% on weekdays in Western Cape, South Africa.

Apart from reductions in trauma admissions in hospitals the alcohol sales bans have been linked to reduced crime and reduced violent death rates.

The substantial reductions in alcohol-linked trauma admissions at hospitals, crime and violent deaths after the alcohol sales ban demonstrate two facts:

  1. The drastic extent to which alcohol fuels crime, violence and accidents in South Africa, and
  2. The potential of prioritizing alcohol policy action to increase population level health, resolve societal problems and uplift the South African economy.

Following the President’s statement, the ANC national executive committee has suggested that the government introduce stricter liquor laws on a permanent basis according to a statement by the ANC released on January 8, 2021.

Alcohol policy developments in South Africa

This is not the first time the South African government has considered improving alcohol policy solutions to prevent and reduce harms and develop the nation. The Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016 proposes evidence-based policy measures to tackle South Africa’s alcohol problem, including:

  • Increasing the legal age for alcohol purchase to 21 years;
  • The introduction of a 100-metre radius limitation of trade around educational and religious institutions;
  • Banning of any alcohol sales and advertising on social and small media;
  • The introduction of a new liability clause for alcohol sellers.

Unfortunately this Amendment bill has not proceeded beyond the cabinet in the last four years, despite wide support by high-level ministers and various organizations. Recently, the Commission for Gender Equality of South Africa recommended to the government to improve alcohol policies towards reduced gender-based violence which is often fueled by alcohol. The commission specifically recommended to implement a minimum unit price (MUP), and increase alcohol taxes to better prevent alcohol’s harm to others.

Meanwhile, the government has proposed stricter rules on driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) through the National Road Traffic Amendment Bill. The improved measures include a zero blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for all drivers. The Bill is currently open for public comment.

At the provincial level the Western Cape government is considering improved alcohol laws, including minimum unit pricing (MUP) and a package of other measures.

Urgent national policy action needed

South Africa, communities and society at large suffer from a heavy health, social and economic burden from alcohol harm. For example, according to the WHO Global Alcohol Status Report 2018, South Africa ranks among the countries with the most years of life lost due to alcohol. The country is also a target of the alcohol industry seeking to increase profits through the growing population of youth and the middle-class. The relatively weaker alcohol policy measures in the country are exploited by the Big Alcohol to aggressively market products and interfere with public health policy making.

South Africa has three draft Bills waiting for adoption that would vastly improve the regulation of the alcohol trade, marketing, and availability, according to Mrs. Diedericks Maker, regional coordinator of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA).

  • Draft Control of Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Bill of 2013
  • Draft Traffic Amendment Bill of 2015
  • Draft Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016

A commissioned study by NEDLAC, the economic chamber of government, conducted by Genesis Analytics in 2017 confirmed that the Liquor Amendment Bill of 2017, will result in:

  • A saving in government spending of between R 0.7b and R 1.9b (including savings on government spending on public health of between R 0.3b and R 0.73b), and
  • At least 185 lives would be saved a year as a result of a projected 3% reduction in alcohol-related road traffic fatalities, as well as a reduction in HIV transmission, crime, violence, and gender-based violence.

The South African government needs to act urgently to bring in the necessary improvements to alcohol policy in the country and prioritize public health over private profits of the alcohol industry.

[This article was updated on January 20, 2021 as per new information from Times Live.]

For further reading

South Africa: Campaign for Better Alcohol Laws


Business Tech: “South Africa to look at stricter alcohol laws – here’s what you should know

News24: “Ramaphosa calls for review of alcohol legislation, sets Covid-19 as govt’s priority for 2021

Times Live: “Stiffer tax on booze looms large