SA’s herculean task — fighting the scourge of underage drinking

SA’s herculean task — fighting the scourge of underage drinking
Investigating officers with the owner of the tavern Vuyokazi Ndevu at Enyobeni tavern in scenery park outside East London on 05 July 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick)

At the time 21 young people died in a tavern in East London, the youngest being only 13 years old, the Eastern Cape had only 18 inspectors to check on the compliance in 7,500 taverns and bottle stores.  

While the Eastern Cape Liquor Board runs an active campaign to discourage underage drinking, the issue remains a “rampant problem”, the board’s Dr Mgwebi Msiya said last week as the organisation came under fire after the death of 21 young people in a shebeen in Scenery Park, East London.

Msiya said when they heard that children as young as 13 had died in the shebeen they were extremely shocked.

“This should not have been allowed by the owner of the tavern. It is unheard of that a 13-year-old would be found in an outlet or served with alcohol. The Enyobeni incident is unprecedented and we want to ensure that it doesn’t happen again in our province.”

Twenty-one young people died of an as yet unknown cause in Enyobeni tavern in Scenery Park in the early hours of 26 June. Although it was first thought that the youngsters were trampled to death in the chaos and in an overcrowded venue, this was ruled out, as they had not suffered injuries. Biological samples of the deceased were sent to Cape Town, but Dr Litha Matiwane from the Eastern Cape’s Department of Health said during a mass funeral held for the deceased that they had not received results yet.

Scenery Park and five informal settlements that form part of it have about 20,000 residents, according to the latest census figures available from 2011. It also has 19 licensed taverns and a bottle store.

This is part of 7,500 facilities with liquor licences spread throughout the Eastern Cape — but the entire province only has 18 inspectors who check the compliance of liquor trading outlets.

“The problem of underage drinking in the Eastern Cape is rampant. We have received numerous reports and invitations from schools seeking our intervention to raise awareness on the dangers of underage drinking…

“There are myriad factors that exacerbate underage drinking. For example, underage drinking is a societal problem and its roots can be traced from the family unit. Families are not adequately playing their role in bringing up their young ones in a more proper manner.

The lack of recreational facilities is also consistently mentioned as one of the crucial factors. It is a whole host of factors,” Msiya added.

“We do not know if the shebeens market themselves to young people. However, we do know that general advertising in the mainstream media has a potential to perpetuate underage drinking, hence it is increasingly important that there is legislation that clearly regulates alcohol advertising.”

An attempt to regulate the marketing of alcohol through legislation was abandoned by the national Department of Health in 2017, with the excuse that the matter will be regulated by the Liquor Amendment Bill. But this piece of legislation has been languishing in Parliament since 2018.

“We would love to know why this legislation got stuck in Parliament,” said Maurice Smithers from the South African Alcohol Policy Alliance (Saapa).

“We always urge communities to be vigilant, [and to] report cases of non-compliance wherever [they occur]. Communities are key in the promotion of responsible trading [of liquor outlets] by keeping an eye on them and reporting them in instances of noncompliance,” Msiya added.

Msiya said the Eastern Cape Liquor Board has a comprehensive underage drinking intervention programme that seeks to educate underage people about the dangers of underage drinking.

“Through this initiative, [the board] targets schools and communities with its messages on underage drinking.

We recently introduced a new concept of ambassadors through schools. We ask schools to identify two learners who are then trained in the key messages about the dangers of underage drinking.”

Bongi Ndondo from Saapa added that they have approached President Cyril Ramaphosa for a meeting to be held with civil society leaders about the Enyobeni tragedy.

“The entire system must be held to account,” she said.

In his eulogy at the mass funeral held for the victims of the Enyobeni tragedy, Ramaphosa said he would like to see a national debate on raising the legal drinking age to 21.

Ndondo said part of the problem was that on a national level liquor sales are controlled by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, which has an economic mandate. “But we also need a response to the social harm,” she said, adding that they want better inter-ministerial coordination regarding alcohol.

The Democratic Alliance’s Jane Cowley said it was simply impossible for the liquor board inspectors to perform their pre- and post-licensing inspections at all the venues in the province.

“While the liquor board relies upon ward councillors to assist in the completion of application forms to ensure compliance, it is common knowledge that some councillors will take a bribe to look the other way when buildings are not compliant,” she added. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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