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To drink, or not to drink? A response to Panyaza Lesufi

Panyaza Lesufi, Gauteng MEC for Education. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

Despite having quit alcohol, I disagree with a politician I otherwise respect, Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, who thinks a ban on alcohol should be permanent. A total ban is not a public health solution to addiction.

In public comments on social media and elsewhere (for examples, see here and here), Panyaza Lesufi makes it clear that he doesn’t want anyone to drink alcohol. He went so far as to mock people working within that sector of the economy, implying they lack job-seeking skills or career ambition if they are unable to find alternative paths to economic security.

Lesufi is deeply mistaken and I want to explain why.

First, I get what it is that might be intuitively attractive about the MEC’s position. The abuse of alcohol in our society is legendary. 

I have first-hand experience of what alcohol can do, ripping a family apart. Both my folks drank a lot over weekends. In the case of my late mom (bless her soul), she self-medicated with alcohol and, although this word has stigma attached to it, she became – I now think as an adult looking back on my childhood – an alcoholic. Alcohol did not cause my folks’ marital problems. It certainly fuelled their problems and helped speed up the collapse of their marriage, which ended in divorce. Lots of violence happened inside of that marriage, fuelled by alcohol.

So, I get the meaning of trauma that binge-drinking can lead to. And not all trauma ends up at the hospital. I get the social harms too, like me as a kid, walking with mom in town while she sipped alcohol concealed inside a brown paper bag, experiencing deep private shame. 

But I still disagree with Lesufi.

We live in a society in which we want to give people as much information as possible to ensure they make choices informed by the maximally available facts. We treasure the freedom to be in control of our own lives. That is the kind of society we fought for and, aspirationally, enshrined in our Constitution. 

One of the secondary reasons for rejecting apartheid was to reject a state that does not treat adults as adults, that thinks it has a monopoly on deciding what moral values and principles should find expression in social policies. We signed up for a diverse society in which Eusebius is free to quit drinking or to never start drinking at all, but we also signed up for a society in which his sister or dad or friend may want to drink because they choose, freely, to live a different life.

What, you might then wonder, about the harms associated with alcohol abuse? The answer is for the state, in conjunction with many brilliant civil society organisations (ed see for example the recommendations of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance), to focus on harm-reduction strategies. A total ban is illiberal and undesirable. It is regressive. It treats adults as children.

Lesufi should rather ask a more complex set of questions: What are the causes of addiction? Why do people who abuse any drug – not just alcohol, by the way – become addicted? How does one reduce harm while preserving the freedoms we cherish?

I think of the incredible work by initiatives such as World Without Wine, founded by Janet Gourand, based in Cape Town, which has helped many people either quit drinking or cut back on binge-drinking. The work of Alcoholics Anonymous, globally, is another example. These programmes are not based on infantilising adults but on empowering them to make choices that reduce harm to themselves, and to the communities in which they are embedded.

But the reason a total ban on alcohol is appealing is simply because it means you do not have to do the hard work that comes with taking harm-reduction strategies seriously. 

Quick fixes are never, however, long-term solutions. If someone is addicted to alcohol because they have deep-seated personal, familial and other problems, they will simply find new ways to lash out, new ways to self-medicate. You cannot make the symptom disappear while not working on the underlying cause that could soon manifest in new symptoms. And that is beside the fact that addicts end up with withdrawal symptoms that can lead to even more harmful choices, such as squandering money on the black market for excessively priced beverages that are scarcely available (behaviour that can also rip families apart), or even consuming the toxic sludge produced when people make their own beverages. 

A total ban is not a public health solution to addiction.

The state must engage citizens as adults. That is the only premise from which to proceed rather than moralising and taking top-down decisions about what you and I can and cannot do.

And when the state engages us as citizens, it can appeal to our ability to reason and exercise our agency responsibly. Each one of us must be held ethically accountable for the individual choices we make. Of course, it is hard to make healthy choices when many brands invest enormously in their products, to pull us towards them psychologically. 

But we are not robots. Each of us must take personal responsibility, too. A total ban on alcohol says: “We don’t think you can be trusted with personal responsibility.” That is poor messaging. 

I think it is fantastic, in the context of our desperate fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, that there are fewer alcohol-fuelled trauma cases our healthcare workers must deal with. I know it is complex working out whether the curfew is mostly the reason for this or whether it is the temporary ban on the sale and transportation of alcohol. It is probably a combination. 

First, a temporary solution must not be permanent unless it is deeply desirable. And as I have argued above, a total ban, permanently, is not desirable. What we need to do is to increase testing, tracing, isolating and treating Covid-positive people. That, combined with acquiring, distributing and administering a safe and efficacious vaccine, is the optimal long-term solution. The state, working with non-state actors, must deliver that combination of solutions.

And we are, frankly, in a kind of warlike situation, globally, with this being a battle between humans and Covid-19. We need a total wartime effort from all of us collectively, each human and each corporate citizen. So even companies like SAB were right to comply with the announcement in late December 2020 that we are again temporarily halting the sale and transportation of alcohol. 

Our healthcare professionals need help. SAB will not have any consumers left if we lose the battle against Covid-19. It makes ethical and business sense to support the temporary ban on alcohol. 

But I want to end off with two thoughts, nevertheless, that focus on the problems with Lesufi’s pre-pandemic crusade against all alcohol consumption: should state policy going forward track the desire of Lesufi that we become a country of teetotallers?  

First, a temporary solution must not be permanent unless it is deeply desirable. And as I have argued above, a total ban, permanently, is not desirable. What we need to do is to increase testing, tracing, isolating and treating Covid-positive people. That, combined with acquiring, distributing and administering a safe and efficacious vaccine, is the optimal long-term solution. The state, working with non-state actors, must deliver that combination of solutions.

A drawn-out hard lockdown and extensions on curtailments on our liberties are undesirable over the long term. 

Finally, I want to get back to Lesufi’s attitude towards workers within the alcoholic beverages sector. It is frankly disgusting for the MEC to shame people who work within the industry or related ones. 

A couple of weeks ago a waiter at a restaurant near my house told me that, anecdotally, up to 60% of their sales come from people buying drinks with their meals. They get fewer customers coming to the restaurant when drinks cannot be sold. This example shows you that a ban does not only affect taverns and clubs but other parts of the economy too.

It means some of those waiters could lose jobs quite apart from obvious direct jobs being shed within the beverages sector when alcohol is not manufactured, sold and distributed to the usual endpoints. Many of us were raised on money generated within these sectors of the economy. 

Given the state of our economy, it is criminal to laugh off an entire sector of the economy. The Beer Association of South Africa warned just two days ago that in the beer industry alone more than 7,000 jobs were lost during the lockdown periods and about R7.4-billion in taxes and excise duties. And beer is just one part of the value chain.

There are parts of the value chain I cannot even expound on here without this becoming a treatise: advertising, logistics, farming, and so on. There are hundreds of thousands of livelihoods at stake here, about which it is politically and socially irresponsible to be indifferent.

The state should not see corporations as enemies but as partners. Ethical corporate citizenship is possible. Sure, not all companies are truly or equally or consistently ethical. But the state cannot treat entire sectors homogeneously. This is a time for cooperation, not for zero-sum games.

Look, this is all a fine balancing act. I support the decision of the temporary ban. I cannot see why anyone would not want to assist our healthcare workers who bear the brunt of the immediacy of the fight against Covid-19. 

Whether it should be extended and for how long is far trickier to puzzle through – because an extension is a lazy way to avoid the more important focus on testing, tracing, isolating, treating and vaccinating. And a ban is never going to be an effective way to deal with addiction, binge-drinking and other social ills that sometimes accompany alcohol consumption. 

I don’t miss drinking alcohol. I like substitutes like Castle Free or Heineken Zero. But I do NOT want to live in a society in which my peers are told they have to make the same choices as me. I do NOT want to live in a society in which, despite the unemployment crisis, a politician laughs at someone working within the beer industry. 

I want to live in a society that respects our freedoms, including our economic freedoms, and ensures harm-reduction strategies are available for citizens who sometimes make mistakes, mistakes that come with living a recognisably full, human life. That is more desirable than the lazy lure of an indefinite ban. DM/MC

Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst, author and broadcaster.

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All Comments 13

  • Quite unusually for me, I agree with every word this writer has said. A point he mentions briefly would have to do with the consequences of prohibition. Panyaza Lesufi is, comparatively, a young man. He may not remember first hand the days when black people were segregated in their drinking desires and habits limited to certain brews in certain places. Aside from the immense indignities it subjected people to, it was a major contributor to the damage done to people from illicit home made brews. It was another aspect of apartheid, like the cruel and self-perpetuating “dop” system which has had a long-lasting effect on people and can’t be wished away by a ban — effectively on the past. We have serious ills as a result of alcohol — among them one of the largest foetal alcohol syndrome epidemics in the world. Banning alcohol will not assist the damage already done — and does not deal at all with the dreadful environments in which victims of this syndrome live. I’m pleased for Lesufi that he has no need for alcohol in his life. It means there are no tough choices for him to grapple with. Prohibition hasn’t worked anywhere. What makes him think it will work here?

  • I totally agree with Eusebius, I am also sympathetic to his experience of alcohol misuse – my experience as a doctor has been clear. Alcohol fuels violence – that Chris Hani Bara trauma has always been like a war zone on weekends – stinking of alcohol, blood and vomit. But it is not only those who are addicted that are the problem – those who “binge drink” cause untold harm – even if they are not addicted. The country has to find a permanent solution and perhaps looking to legislation from 2017 that has be languishing in parliament would be a good start? Act now!

  • I agree too. Banning substances does not take the substance use and maybe abuse away but merely drives it straight into the waiting arms of the illicit trade where there is no cost control, no quality control and most important for the economy, no tax.
    Further and perhaps more damaging to our collective society in the long run, it drives up the state of permissive anarchy in the country. When trade is illegal and there is no capacity (or will) to control this, society morphs from responsible law abiding citizen to “what we get away with” permissive lawlessness.

    When the cigarette ban was on we had bands of snotty nosed kids ( and I say that in context of the virus pandemic) in a main Knysna business street running up to car windows at every stop intersection, pushing cheap cigarette brands into drivers faces. No masks, no distance, no sanitiser, but many competing spitty sales pitches into your car if your window was down. And even when the cop cars were patrolling, those kids were like mosquitos who would not be deterred by the tabard…they just kept on buzzing in to their targets.

    Interestingly the uncontrolled illegal cigarette economy did provide the opportunity for the poor to make good cash, albeit illegal. I wasn’t unhappy about that small point in all of this, freemarket and all, but it does illustrate the point of a growing anarchic society when prohibitions exist.

  • I’m not often on the same page as Eusebius McKaiser, but this is a great column. I think our politicians have little faith in their constituents, and frankly often treat them the same way the Apartheid era did – as children who can’t make their own decisions. These nanny tendencies arise in many ways, from the ridiculous cigarette ban to how politicians love appending words such as ‘mama’ to their name. Perhaps the latter is an African tradition, but once the politicians brandish it, they only do so to express their populist tendencies and superiority over the electorate. These guys want to be chiefs, not elected leaders. They want to rule autocratically without consequence, not democratically. And they don’t seem to care about raising the people up. That could also explain our dismal schooling and public healthcare. They don’t care about the people. They just want to rule the people, and this effort to infantalise us smacks of their superiority complex.

  • Totally agree Eusebius!! Well said.. It irks me no end that we are treated like children.. As usual, and as you point out, this is just the ANC being lazy, treating the symptom and not the cause! But are we surprised?? Not me! Their ignorance, stupidity and arrogance knows no bounds.
    IDIOTS

  • I don’t know whether I agee with him or not because although I was interested in reading the article I saw who the author was, and have no interest in what be says or doesn’t say. If it is absent his usual racist nonsense it is perhaps because he wants to rehabilitate himself as an employable commentator. Time will tell but it will take more than one article.

  • Yes. and what is true for alcohol (‘a total ban is not a public health solution to addiction’) is equally true with respect to all other ‘recreational’ drugs. As it happens, alcohol and tobacco are among the most damaging of them all, and are subject to defined regulation rather than criminalising their users. A focused regulatory system for the production, sale and use of all drugs is the only just, responsible and realistic way forward.

    • Decriminalising users of all drugs (as we have recently done with marijuana) is an essential and urgent first step. We have a functioning and effective regulatory system for drugs – some (like cigarettes) you buy at any corner store; some only at designated outlets (liquor store, pharmacy, hospital); some you must be older than 18, others you need to speak to a pharmacist, and still others need a doctors prescription. It’s time to move all drugs into this regulated system, give up the destructive and unwinnable ‘war on drugs’ and redirect resources from policing to health to help the addicts they are and not the criminals we make them.

  • There’s too much to say about this in a short comment, but as background, I, too, respect Panyaza Lesufi, as well as Eusebius McKaiser (though I don’t always agree with him). I, too, support the temporary ban on alcohol sales despite being an enthusiastic drinker (and one who hasn’t stocked up). But a few quick points: (a) “It would be good if no one drank” is not the same as “it would be good to ban drinking.” I doubt the first is true, but even if it is, the second doesn’t follow. Nor is it remotely plausible. “Peterman” has it right with the reference to American prohibition. That history should end the discussion in its tracks and for Lesufi (or any thinking person) to seriously raise the idea beggars belief. Second, people conflate the *use* of alcohol with the *abuse* of alcohol. We need a strong argument for the claim that the latter is so bad that the former should be outlawed. None has ever been provided. “Nanny state” arguments–protecting people from themselves–are not the same as “protection of society” arguments. Lesufi (and thus McKaiser, since his piece is a response) focus on the former. And I agree with McKaiser. But “protection of society” arguments are also insinuated into such arguments, in which case my first two points apply. (And both appear in McKaiser’s response; I doubt Lesufi is aware of the distinction.) By all means, keep the hospitals free for the urgent response to the Covid-19 horror show, and, by all means, let’s look for means to minimize the harms of alcohol abuse (both to the abusers and those around them) consistent with the sensible and enjoyable use of alcohol. But the thought of a total ban is too preposterous to take seriously (for the above reasons and a litany of others not mentioned here).

  • Turning an addict (of any substance) into a criminal is not just bad policy, it is inhumane and about as far from a human rights based harm reduction public health strategy as you can get.

    If America has taught us anything after its failed alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and its failed 100 year global war on drugs, it’s that banning substances is a disastrous policy that ruins lives, neighbourhoods and entire countries.

  • I agree with Eusebius for the most part. A prolonged prohibition is neither advisable nor desirable. There are instead a range of effective evidence-based strategies that can be applied to reduce alcohol harm.
    However the elephant in the room is the industry itself and its unhealthy dependence on the current levels of hazardous drinking from which it derives its profits. Its PR efforts focus blame on those abhorrent individuals that drink too much and ruin it for us moderate drinkers. This is dishonest. Without that rampant harmful drinking the industry would halve in size – i.e. annual turnover would equate to sales in a year with 6- 10 months of sales bans.
    It is simply not possible to partner with an industry that has such a dependence on harmful drinking. The industry itself needs rehab.

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