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Prohibition, the stiffest drink of all

South Africa


Prohibition, the stiffest drink of all

Comprehensive regulations in South Africa have exposed some rather raw social fault lines,says the writer. (Photo: Unsplash)

The American experience with Prohibition in the 1920s may offer some insights into South Africa’s own experience with prohibitions on booze, butts and pre-cooked chickens.

The scene will be familiar to film and television watchers worldwide from decades of stories about gangsters, the mob, the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra, the “Family”. A man rises through some dark and dangerous paths to reach the upper crust of the underworld, but, inevitably, those grim-faced forces of law and order painfully turn things around. And the bad guys (even if they are anti-heroes in the style of auteur-driven film) get theirs in the end. And even Jay Gatsby, the original bootlegger anti-hero of several films and the original novel, doesn’t fare well by the end of his story.

The almost universal currency of that realm, or, at the very least its always-hovering back story, is booze, especially if the American storyline takes place somewhere between 1920 and 1933. That is because the United States tried a virtually unprecedented experiment in social engineering — the prohibition of the manufacture, sales, or consumption of any alcoholic beverages. Inevitably, a significant share of Americans chose to disregard the law, choosing to make their own illicitly brewed or distilled beverages — homebrew, moonshine, bathtub gin — or frequent speakeasies, the illegal bars frequented by all manner of people. 

But alcohol consumption is a big business with a constant client base. Accordingly, the relatively unsophisticated criminal gangs of an earlier era soon discovered that the importation of beverages from neighbouring countries such as Canada and Cuba could be the perfect growth industry. It generated vast profits, even as it allowed expansion into other more legitimate business sectors as well and also generated the cash needed to keep police and politicians off the backs of these growing criminal syndicates. Once Prohibition was finally repealed under the Roosevelt administration, the criminal syndicates did not vanish, but turned their now-well-developed but amoral organisational skills to other areas of illegal human desires. 

A significant share of Americans chose to disregard the Prohibition law, choosing to make their own illicitly brewed or distilled beverages — home brew, moonshine, bathtub gin — or to frequent speakeasies, the illegal bars frequented by all manner of people. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Prohibition itself had been born out of a moral impulse to save people from the evils of drink, including more than a tincture of sanctimoniousness for decrying the habits of immigrants with their degrading habits that included all that alcohol consumption. (America had, it seemed, actually always had a problem with drink. Descriptions of frontier living from the beginning of western migration onward are filled with tales of much more consumption than would be the norm now.) 

Once prohibition ended, the criminal syndicates increasingly moved into many other illicit activities: gambling, drugs, money laundering, the trafficking in persons and stolen merchandise, and the sale of counterfeit products (or products on which the applicable taxes had not been paid). Back in the old days, the popular image of the mob was that it was Italian American — most especially southern Italians and Sicilians — with an unbreakable loyalty and the code of silence, “omerta”, one of the keys tying the soldiers and the capo together. 

Now, of course, a whole series of other immigrant ethnicities have moved into this game — from Albanians to Vietnamese. But the idea of purveying products people want, but shouldn’t partake in, continues, largely without letup, regardless of the ethnicity of the purveyor.

In America, while national Prohibition only lives on in film and television — think The Untouchables with that extraordinary, but unlikely scene of those Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents riding across the bridge into Canada in co-operation with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to stop the bootleggers — [and a great film clip if you can find it!]. The residue of Prohibition actually lingers on in a few “dry” counties or in a couple of states where liquor sales are in the hands of state stores. 

Meanwhile, criminal gangs have found other lucrative avenues such as illegal drugs and untaxed cigarettes. That latter product is profitable because while Northeastern states and big cities like New York City have high local taxes on cigarettes, in addition to federal taxes, tobacco-producing states like North Carolina add very low taxes on the same product. This differential makes it very lucrative to smuggle cigarettes northwards and sell them on to retailers who are not fussy about following the law. If they can get away with it, of course.

And here is where we get to pivot from this short history of the American underworld to our current agonies, thanks to the coronavirus and some desperate efforts to stop it, but Prohibition makes a return shortly. As we have now all learnt, in America — as with so many other countries — the pressing need is to break up the chances for person-to-person transmission by means of sweeping lockdowns of people and shutdowns of their places of employment or education. This has been in keeping with well-understood principles of epidemiology. Giving the virus no easy means of being transmitted from person to person via close contact is a well-understood strategy, even if it creates discomfort and inconvenience for the people whose lives are thereby being saved.

In the US, in accord with its federal principles, the various states have adopted more or less severe shutdowns and lockdowns — with a state like New York being among the most all-encompassing, while Southeastern and less populated high plains and Rocky Mountain states have the least severe measures. Additionally, some cities such as Los Angeles and New York City have even tighter restrictions. Meanwhile, the president’s guidelines, released last week, have provided, well, some rather gauzy guidelines and recommendations about how to roll back these restrictions, based on measurements of the decline in new deaths or infections, in conjunction with comprehensive testing and contact tracing regimens. 


Without a viable vaccine, let alone effective prophylactic treatments or drugs to cure Covid-19 infections, epidemiologists warn this is precisely the kind of precipitate action that just about guarantees a second wave of population-wide infection all over again


Crucially, despite his earlier huffing and puffing, President Trump backed down from his announcement he was totally in charge of everything and, recanting, accepted that state governors were the authorities who must decide for their respective states, although they should still follow the recommendations in the president’s guidelines. Thus emboldened, several states have unwisely already begun to roll back restrictions on businesses, and Florida and several others have relaxed the bans on using public beaches and parks. 

Georgia, for example, has now given the okay for the resumption of business by — and we promise we are not making this up — bowling alleys, nail salons, tattoo parlours, massage parlours, aestheticians (who even knew of this particular craft?) and barber shops. This is despite the obvious impossibility for such operations to maintain the now-ubiquitous, two-metre social distancing guidelines between client and service provider. Not every mayor in Georgia supports their governor’s decision, and some individuals have been on news channel television platforms saying they will not be open for business until there is a more logical all-clear than simply the desire for some to get a new tattoo or haircut. 

Still, there is little doubt that if many of these facilities do reopen, it is going to make a mockery of enforcing social distance and preventing transmission throughout the more general population. Without a viable vaccine, let alone effective prophylactic treatments or drugs to cure Covid-19 infections, epidemiologists warn this is precisely the kind of precipitate action that just about guarantees a second wave of population-wide infection all over again. Accordingly, the prognosis is not good for beating the disease in the face of such sloppy thinking and still sloppier government decisions.

Much of this dispute is being portrayed as a cultural clash in America, between red and blue state populations, and with small, but vociferous, media savvy groups demanding their “liberation” from their “oppression” by lockdown. They have taken to protesting in front of various state capitol buildings, bearing historic flags and symbols of the Revolutionary War (and the occasional Confederate flag) and hopefully unloaded firearms as well — concurrently tying their protests to a hatred of any form of gun control regulation. Inevitably, too, they have received the exuberant, tweeted backing of President Trump, as well as some more shadowy support from conservative donors. 

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the lockdown and shutdown has been more comprehensive and definitive than in much of the United States. The low infection, transmission and mortality figures in South Africa (so far, at least) would seem to have significantly bolstered the rationale for this kind of near-total control over people’s interactions. A drive through any normally bustling South African city easily demonstrates the comprehensiveness of this, as the overwhelming proportion of South Africans have co-operated, despite some real, negative impacts on earnings — and even survival in crowded townships and informal settlements.

But such comprehensive regulations have also exposed some rather raw social fault lines. Prohibition of the alcoholic type can be tough for some people. Similar to the US in the 1920s and early 30s, an absolute prohibition on the purchase of alcoholic beverages went into effect concurrently with the national shutdown. Further, the government determined that food stores, pharmacies and animal and pet food suppliers were allowed to stay open (with whole classes of products such as batteries and children’s clothing not deemed essential and now forbidden for sale as well), but not so for restaurants, taverns or takeaway cooked food establishments.

Almost immediately, the bans on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products provoked outcries that this decision was weighed against poorer people who didn’t have the financial wherewithal to stockpile such goods in advance, in comparison to better-off South Africans. It was one thing to shutter every restaurant and tavern in the country, so went the argument, but it was a different thing entirely to prevent people from buying such products in grocery or neighbouring bottle stores for home consumption. 

The ban on the selling of cooked food brought yet another rent in the social fabric. For some, complaints against this edict smacked of the kind of noblesse oblige associated with anger on the rich who were now unable to obtain their favourite pre-cooked delicacies from speciality shops and high-end supermarkets. But for others, the argument is couched rather differently. Exponents say they are speaking up for hardworking essential workers (in the health sector, the police and other public safety fields). Such people, coming off a hard, extended duty shift, should be able to come off shift with a warm meal already made after a tough day. 

The government’s position on pre-cooked foods, however, has been along the lines of the need to draw a line against such purchases, lest they have no argument against allowing restaurants selling such items. And restaurants, pre-cooked meal counters in stores and hard-tack shops would all inevitably become gathering points for citizens, thereby making the shutdown and lockdown effectively useless in preventing person-to-person contagion. But some have wondered if these prohibitions don’t also contain just a whiff of some preachy, do-good-ism on the part of government by deciding that booze and butts are bad for one (well, okay, they are) and that the purchase of a pre-cooked chicken means consumers are not attending to the preparation of healthy home-cooked meals. 

Inevitably, the online world has been filled with some sharp repartee about the shutdown’s effect on people’s work, weight, and world-weariness, as well as concerns — rightly or wrongly — about how much use such blanket prohibitions can actually have in containing the virus.

Andrew Harding, reporting for the BBC, noted:

“The idea was simple. Ban all booze, and you’ll prevent drunken fights, reduce domestic violence, stop drunk driving, and eliminate the weekend binge-drinking so prevalent across South Africa. Police, medics and analysts estimate — conservatively — that alcohol is involved in, or responsible for, at least 40% of all emergency hospital admissions. In normal times some 34,000 trauma cases arrive at emergency departments in South Africa every week.

“But since the nationwide lockdown came into force last month to prevent the spread of coronavirus, that figure has plummeted, dramatically, by roughly two thirds, to about 12,000 admissions. ‘It’s a significant impact,’ said Professor Charles Parry, with some understatement.”

Harding quoted Parry’s explanation that some “5,000 extra hospital beds that now stand empty could soon prove invaluable if the pandemic — which has been held, impressively, in check here for several weeks — begins to spread again exponentially, as government advisers predict it may”.

“But medical experts, while urging the government to keep the alcohol ban in place, also point out that heavy drinking weakens the immune system and may have a particular effect on respiratory conditions. ‘Covid-19 is going to have a more severe impact on heavy drinkers… and in South Africa many people live in crowded conditions. So, alcohol sales… may increase community transmission [as people often drink socially]… and we’re likely to see an increase in gender-based violence and harm towards children,’ warned Professor Parry.

“But how to enforce such a draconian and unprecedented clampdown for five weeks, or possibly more if South Africa’s lockdown, due to end on 30 April, is extended once again? The man responsible for policing the new prohibition has provoked anger in some quarters by appearing to encourage the security forces to take heavy-handed, and potentially illegal, action against those caught breaking the rules.…

“Police Minister Bheki Cele… recently warned that his forces would ‘destroy the infrastructure where the liquor is sold’. ‘It’s deeply concerning when you have senior political leaders encouraging police officers to use violence or force, or to break the law. It seems as if the police minister has gone rogue,’ said Gareth Newham, a crime expert at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.

“…But while many in the industry acknowledge the importance of supporting national efforts to fight the virus, there is frustration about a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that is causing significant damage to many businesses. ‘It’s not looking good at all,’ said Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela, the country’s first black female brewery owner and chair of South Africa’s Beer Association, who fears her small business may go under if the ban continues for much longer. ‘The arguments against lifting the ban do make sense. A lot of people are unemployed and use alcohol as a get-away drug,’ she acknowledged, but she said a more sophisticated approach — perhaps allowing limited alcohol sales — could save her industry from collapse.” 

While the Democratic Alliance, the country’s official opposition party, came down in favour of a smart lockdown, the Economic Freedom Fighters dismissed such ideas as murderous and racist, given the largely positive effect the total ban is having on the health of poorer South Africans. Meanwhile, the prohibition of sales of non-essential products in supermarkets has been extended to yeast packets, an essential component of home bread-making during the lockdown, but also a key ingredient for the home brewing of beer.

Drawing the parallel to America’s prohibition of alcohol sales, Harding went on to note:

“There are concerns that the alcohol ban could push the sector here into the hands of criminals who already control a lucrative chunk of South Africa’s cigarette industry. ‘The longer the lockdown goes on, the more criminal networks will be able to entrench their ability to sell and distribute alcohol,’ confirmed Gareth Newham, warning that the government was already losing a fortune in taxation because of the ban…

“But as things stand, one aspect of the ban does appear to be uniting people from different walks of life. It has created a new enthusiasm for home brewing, which has always been a firm fixture in rural communities. Videos and recipes for pineapple beer and the more traditional corn and sorghum known as umqombothi, are now being widely touted on social media, alongside warnings that such drinks, if wrongly prepared, could prove dangerous.”

With time to go before the end of any lockdown and shutdown, let alone the prohibition of the sale of products like cigarettes and booze, and perhaps cooked food as well, South Africa has fertile ground for argument over what works best, or why. But America is also facing renewed squabbling between the levels of government and between different states over how best to proceed with keeping or relaxing its map of economic shutdowns and social distancing. And all of these arguments may get to be repeated if the virus manages to demonstrate some serious resilience and make its feared comeback in the autumn of the northern hemisphere. DM


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