There’s an oldish adage which says that anyone at 20 who is not a socialist has no heart, and anyone at 40 who is still a socialist has no head. From this you can safely conclude that Rob Davies, our Minister of Trade and Industry, is in an arrested state of development. In the presence of overwhelming evidence that the policies enforced by his department have made a major contribution to the contraction of our economy, he remains steadfast in his commitment to the principles with which Joe Stalin set back the Soviet Union by 50 years.
His latest sally into the field of taking a working industry and wrecking it is a draft liquor bill published for comment at the end of September with an end-October deadline. It contains almost all of the controversial clauses of the discussion document issued a year ago – which is a clear indication that no one at the DTI ever had any intention of taking cognisance of feedback. This in turn suggests that it would be futile for interested parties to engage now – on this ridiculously short notice deadline.
Many of the issues proposed last year and enshrined in the bill are unlikely to pass muster when the act is brought before the Constitutional Court – which is inevitable. It infringes on the rights of the provinces, it effectively expropriates property rights and it aims to impose vicarious responsibility on producers for the abuse of their products by consumers.
One glimpse of these conditions – together with a few comments issued with the bill – tells you that much of what is on the table is a grandstanding gesture to a significant portion of the ANC’s constituency which has deeply ingrained prohibitionist inclinations. The information adduced to support the repressive nature of these proposals is unsupported by peer-reviewed publications – but is offered as incontrovertible facts by the DTI.
It’s worth going through a few of the choicer comments. We are told in the release accompanying the draft bill that Minister Davies says that South Africa “has the highest level of alcohol consumption in the world at 10-12% as compared with the world average of 6%.” (My italics) Half of this comment is entirely nonsensical – which doesn’t mean that Rob Davies didn’t make it, but it suggests that he hasn’t focused on literacy when it comes to employing the staff responsible for putting out the policy statements which accompany legislation which could have a profound impact on the economy.
What can he possibly mean by an alcohol consumption of 10-12% – or even 6%? … 6% of what? Of all fluids consumed, of the total population, of all moneys spent on nutrients? What I think he means is that South Africans consume 10-12 litres absolute alcohol annually on average. This comment might be based on a WHO report which shows that recorded annual per capita consumption is 8.2 litres and illicit concoctions account for a further 2.9 litres. (This in itself is an interesting figure, since it shows that even before he introduces legislation which will drive the production and sale of alcohol further underground, some 35% of all liquor traded in South Africa takes place in the illicit sector).
However, even based on this assumption, South Africa is way off having the highest level of alcohol consumption in the world. We come roughly halfway down a table which includes all the Muslim countries. In fact, even excluding the heavy-drinking nations from the former Soviet Union, we sit comfortably below most European countries, below Mother Grundy Australia, below the UK, Denmark and Spain. In short, the minister is lying, and clearly he is lying for a reason: he needs to make it appear as if he’s responding to a crisis – one that is certainly not based on the level of alcohol consumption (which is moderate) but, to the extent that it exists, is a measure of a failure to educate and to police (both of which require insight, hard work and competence – all in short supply.)
Then there are the other obviously grandstanding clauses, starting with the idea that producers will be held liable for damage caused by inebriates. I have every reason to believe that any attempted prosecution of a claim against, for example, SABMiller, because someone who bought beer (possibly at a number of different outlets and then say, crashed a car – when the few cops out there operating breathalysers were too busy collecting bribes instead of taking drunk drivers off the road) will fail. The moment you go down this road Engen would be liable for the petrol bombs the students are igniting in buses, Eetrite would have to fork out because a dispute between spouses ended in a knife fight, and rope-manufacturers would have to make payments to the estates of unfortunate depressives who ended their lives by hanging themselves in their garages.
These are by no means the only controversial proposals given an airing in the draft bill. Rob Davies wants to make sure there are no licences issued within close proximity to schools, churches, transport routes, and places of rehabilitation. Incidentally, even this short list provides evidence that he’s playing to a particular lobby: perhaps Minister Davies isn’t aware that South Africa is now a secular state and that religion no longer enjoys preferential status. It’s more likely that he considers this nicety irrelevant in the greater cause of grubbing up votes in a desperate attempt to keep the bilge pumps operating to stabilise the sinking ANC ship.
The attempt to raise the legal drinking age to 21 is a crass stupidity likely to have deleterious unintended consequences. Research shows that in the 18-21 age group consumption is presently declining – so this provision is in itself unnecessary and is clearly a response to a demand voiced by the prohibitionist faction within the ANC.
What it will achieve however will be to drive youngsters in search of mind-altering experiences into the arms of the drug lords out of whose clutches it is much more difficult to escape. Unhappily for the state – and unhappily for the kids and their parents who will have to cope with the consequences of this proposal – this is already an unlicensed trade. Supplies of tik, dagga and nyaope are relatively freely available and some of the concoctions are virulent, highly and largely irreversibly addictive, and often fatal.
What a good business for the minister to promote! If, instead, newly under-age drinkers prefer to stick to alcohol, they’ll find a ready illicit market waiting to supply them with “ales” made from sugar, yeast and water – as well as any number of unsavoury ingredients. Generally these are less harmful than the pharmacopeia of drugs, though they affect the viability of the licensed trade and the revenue collections of our Treasury which is already under fiscal strain – as the Medium Term Budget makes clear.
The proposed regulations governing advertising (no on-air liquor advertisements until after 22:00) will drive the big budgets to the below-the-line segment (and will undermine the marketing efforts of the smaller estates which have made this more regional – and less expensive – marketing strategy their own). It won’t help the SABC either, but then we know that if the ANC cared about the ever-increasing liabilities of state-owned enterprises it would make more of an effort to get rid of Zuma acolytes like Hlaudi and Dudu.
The requirement that licensees become Level 4 BEE compliant is further evidence that the DTI is playing to its electorate: except for the production and wholesale sector, the liquor trade is probably the most transformed industry in the country, with far more black than white retailers. Unfortunately many of the black traders can’t get licences – but that’s because the DTI has made it impossible for them to be compliant: shut them out of the markets where they are already established and batter down the doors elsewhere does seem a curious approach to levelling the playing field.
In short, it’s an insane piece of legislation which will keep the courts and legal profession busy for some time, at an immediate and direct cost to the state and to the licensed industry, while the minister and his cronies do their best to appease a lobby whose attitude to the demon drink is driven by an unfortunate history with alcohol and whose response to it is irrational and repressive.
The only route forward should be one of better policing and proper education (about drink and drugs) from the earliest possible age. But that would require real effort, political will, and the co-operation of a teaching profession which is probably disinclined to play along, and which anyway has proved itself incapable of providing a basic education to the charges in its care. If you can’t produce mathematically and linguistically literate matriculants, even with the best will in the world, you’re not going to manage this kind of communication. If Rob Davies were to reflect – even for a moment – on what really needed to be done, he would withdraw the bill and get on with the real business of managing the relationship between alcohol and the citizens of this country. I fear there’s more chance of Jacob Zuma disclosing how much he and the Guptas will take out of the proposed nuclear build programme. DM