The ban on alcohol has once again taken centre stage, raising questions about its legitimacy and effectiveness in combating Covid-19. In the meantime, thousands are losing their jobs and millions of rands of GDP have gone up in smoke.
On Sunday (12 July), government dealt the alcohol industry another crippling blow when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a ban on alcohol sales in South Africa – without any consultation or reasonable notice.
Already reeling from the effects of a previous alcohol ban, the latest developments came as devastating news to the approximately 300 000 wine sector employees, while millions of rands of GDP went up in smoke in a matter of minutes.
It’s true, we cannot deny South Africans’ unhealthy relationship with alcohol. The Department of Health’s data on alcohol abuse in South Africa was dubious at best. An independent evaluation of a South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) report identified several data and statistical limitations, due to incomplete data, which together made the robustness of the research uncertain.
However, for the sake of objectivity, we spoke to Dr Ima Aggenbach, a healthcare practitioner at Panorama Mediclinic (who previously worked at state hospital Tygerberg’s trauma/ICU unit for 13 years). She says the situation at trauma units is “complete chaos at the moment.”
“All the horror stories you hear are true,” says Dr Irma. “Since the ban on alcohol was lifted a month ago, victims of alcohol-related injuries and violence have been queuing at Tygerberg Hospital. It’s placing enormous pressure on medical resources and capacity.”
Although Dr Aggenbach has empathy for the alcohol and wine sectors of South Africa, she does however, feel that the ban was a “necessary measure” in order for medical personnel to cope with the influx of alcohol-related incidents.
However, South Africans had sacrificed so much in a bid to give our hospitals time to prepare for the incoming ‘peak’. It then came as a total shock when our president once again imposed a ban on the sale, dispensation and distribution of alcohol, because our hospitals are under-capacitated. Wasn’t the reason our industry had suffered such hardships during the hard lockdown to prevent just that?
Lucky Ntimane from the National Liquor Traders Council says government is applying a “shotgun approach” with the reinstatement of the alcohol ban for what is essentially, “a lack of planning.”
He says government had ample opportunity to prepare medical services during Levels 5 and 4 of lockdown. He says President Ramaphosa’s ability to “shut down an entire industry within a matter of minutes was absurd and shocking. And we haven’t quite recovered from that shock.”
The Democratic Alliance (DA) reiterated these sentiments on Twitter, saying the argument that alcohol trauma is putting the system under pressure is simply an “excuse and cover-up for government’s failure. Alcohol is a scape-goat, not the reason.”
“The news came with shock and dismay,” says Distell CEO Richard Rushton. Despite efforts from the alcohol industry to meet regularly with government in the lead-up to the relaxation of the ban and to take the necessary measures to protect employees and workers during the pandemic – and to trade responsibly – he says they simply weren’t consulted.
“We also had some agreements on how we could navigate our way through the crisis and we had to take a number of measures during the ban period to deal with liquidity and cash flow. Our revenues in South Africa and as a business are down in strong double-digits.”
During Landbouweekblad and Distell’s Crisis Town Hall meeting webinar, Rushton revealed that the wine industry is currently sitting on a 300 million litre surplus, with a harvest still to come in. “That’s equivalent to an entire year’s domestic sale of wine. Trying to deal with this, as well as another ban, is very daunting for the industry,” he says.
Managing director of Vinpro Rico Basson says the industry has moved from crisis to disaster. He estimated that the wine industry could lose up to R7.5 billion if the ban on alcohol sales continue for six to eight weeks. “Small and medium enterprises make up around 80% of the industry and many are struggling.”
Wine commentator and panellist Michael Fridjhon says South Africa could lose most of its wine producers over the next five years. “Given that 50% of the growers were pretty marginal before Covid-19, you can safely assume that 90%-plus will not be in a position to survive.”
Even more discouraging, Basson mentioned that the wine industry, including tourism, had lost about R5 billion in the year to date in local sales and exports as a result of the ban.
Is a blanket ban the answer?
Professor Charles Parry, the director of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) says there’s evidence to show that alcohol is not the sole contributor to trauma cases that are filling up hospital beds.
He also says that an indefinite ban on alcohol was not a solution, calling for a more responsible regulated system without prohibiting a legal product.
Rushton says we need a collaborative effort from government and the industry to address the socio-economic issues and irresponsible drinking culture in South Africa, “working towards a targeted intervention to track behavioural changes over time.”
“Blunt instruments like a blanket alcohol ban, excise increases, licensing and age restrictions tend to create unintended consequences, for particularly the marginalised and socially-disadvantaged groups. It’ll hurt the responsible majority, but not deal with the irresponsible minority in our population.”
He says the industry is putting forward a range of proposals on drunk-driving, responsible trading, binge drinking and the association with gender-based violence that alcohol attracts to target interventions at those at-risk population groups.
“In the short term, we have to use the might of our distribution system to help government fight the pandemic. Whether it’s the distribution of beds, the erection of field hospitals, we’ll do that. If we have to distribute more sanitisers and related healthcare equipment, then we’ll do that. Because the one thing this industry has, is reach. Why not use that to help government in the fight against the pandemic?”
He says at this point, we all recognise the need to work hard and take a multi-faceted approach to tackle some of the problems in our society. “One of which is to deal with the minority of irresponsible alcohol consumers who happen to abuse our beautiful product.”
The industry has taken practical steps around responsible marketing, which plays a crucial role in informing and educating society about responsible alcohol consumption. “We should continue to jealously safeguard the real reasons why we do what we do. No-one in the industry is dependent economically on abusive alcohol consumption. It pays no-one,” says Rushton.
So the liquor industry as a whole suffers, and of course, it will be its poorest and most vulnerable parts that will suffer the most.
The majority of the wine industry’s workforce live on, or just below the breadline. Statistics show that irresponsible alcohol consumption is rife among these communities. Is it not obvious that a ban, and subsequent job losses, could fan the flame and cause an increase in alcohol abuse cases as well as ensuring pressure on hospitals and trauma units?
The broader wine industry has worked hard to increase wages and improve conditions for farm labourers across the board. The panel agreed that the ban has failed to take into account life expectancy as a result of the loss of livelihoods as well as the socio-economic issues that will ultimately worsen.
“We know that when socio-economic factors get worse, people’s behavioural habits around consumption of alcohol may change. People may switch to cheaper price product, or less safer forms of alcohol. This in itself creates a societal problem. All around, blunt instruments like a blanket ban, doesn’t work,” says Rushton.
Basson says the industry is also concerned about farm workers and the broader employee cohort, and will do their best to sustain livelihoods. “We know that the fall out of them losing their jobs will be massive.”
He adds: “The loss of 18 000 jobs might not sound like a lot to some, but multiply that by five dependents, then that’s nearly 100 000 people that are in poverty again. We need to join forces, that’s why we’re doing it at an industry level. I think producers are really putting in effort to take care of their people.”
The wine industry – or the liquor industry as a whole – cannot be blamed for South Africans unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Yet, it is implicated. The wine industry doesn’t consist only of hard-working (yet disadvantaged) vineyard workers, growers, winemakers, merchants and distributors, but it also has sections selling alcohol at cheap prices to make people drunk (think red-cap papsak).
The question beckons: Has government truly considered all the economic implications that the ban will have on the industry, especially in terms of job losses and livelihoods?
Some quarters are calling government’s recent ban an extreme measure at a time when industries – especially wine – can least afford to stop all trade. The alcohol industry is calling for alternative solutions, or perhaps even a middle ground agreement. At the moment, the liquor industry is losing billions in revenue with a myriad of trickled-down effects on the economy.
The wine industry, considered unique to the greater alcohol industry because of its agricultural component, employs 300 000 people, contributes R26 billion to the GDP, and is continually involved in various campaigns to promote and encourage responsible alcohol consumption.
The alcohol industry has collectively raised their voices, saying that in the medium- to longer term, prohibition is not the solution to alcohol issues.
How long will government undermine the basic constitutional rights of South African citizens? By banning alcohol, no matter the severity, is a blatant contradiction to our democracy – something that we’ve fought for many years to achieve.
If socio-economic issues are caused by alcohol, where does the problem lie? Surely not with the alcohol industry – an industry where many rely on employment. Robbing these people of employment could see them fall further into unemployment and subsequent socio-economic woes.
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