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Violence and alcohol abuse: Policy and law enforcement are both failing us

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Mary de Haas is a violence monitor and analyst.

Alcohol abuse and its accompanying violence – often directed at women and children – have deep historical roots in South Africa. They are made worse by the state’s failure to intervene at both policy and law-enforcement level.

Grossly irresponsible behaviour following the lifting of the lockdown ban on liquor sales reminds us of the extent of the problem of drinking in South Africa, despite our not being among the world’s top per capita consumers of alcohol. This abuse is a symptom of deep-seated structural and social problems – especially endemic violence – which have long plagued our country and have not been properly addressed since 1994. Remedial action, short- and long-term, is urgently needed.

Violence and alcohol abuse in historical context

From the earliest days of colonialism, liquor was woven into the political economy, including as an incentive to sell labour to farmers and mines, and it was integral to repressive controls over blacks. Prohibition laws spawned an extensive informal sector which played a crucial role in poverty alleviation. 

By the early 1960s, a third of the police budget was allocated to enforcing prohibition laws, but the informal liquor sector flourished. Hundreds of thousands of blacks were criminalised by convictions for infringements and imprisonment was an introduction to the gangs whose influence spread beyond the prison walls. After blacks were legally allowed to buy liquor in 1962, elites could openly flaunt their status by the type of liquor they (as opposed to poorer people), consumed.

The context of this drinking was a violent one, especially that of the gangsterism which accompanies powerlessness and repression all over the world. However, it was not confined to poor communities. In the 1970s, family killings among Afrikaners were reputedly among the highest in the world. Between 7,000 and 11,000 whites were convicted annually for “drunkenness” between 1959 and 1962. In roughly the same period (1960-1962), around 10% of drivers in fatal accidents had used alcohol. Gun ownership among whites was common and by the 1980s, communities caught up in political violence were awash with weapons.

Gender-based violence, too, cut across racial divides, some hidden behind closed doors of suburbia, but much of it more conspicuously evident in crowded townships and informal settlements. Research abroad in the 1970s pointed to men feeling very threatened by the new assertiveness of women, following the Women’s Liberation Movement and, during the past 40 years, some men have made the transition to a changed balance of power in intimate relationships more easily than others. 

During the apartheid years, black women were described as “doubly oppressed”, suffering both racial and gender oppression, fuelled in KwaZulu-Natal by colonially constructed “customary law” relegating women to a lifelong subservience to men. Old habits die hard. Strong, competent women presented a challenge to many men stripped of their human dignity by treatment by their political masters and, as happens universally, they displaced their anger and frustration onto those who were weaker than they were. 

The inherited problem of organised crime, never properly addressed, has escalated, providing wealth and status for many, but fuelling criminal violence. Politicians openly flaunting several wives and mistresses, provide unfortunate role models emulated by men lacking economic means to support a single wife and children, let alone many. 

At the heart of the abuse in so many black communities lay the destruction of family life by influx control and the migrant labour system, with men confined to single-sex hostels or mine compounds, while women were left – often unsupported – with children and elderly people in rural areas. 

By the late 1980s, many women and children were living with menfolk in hostels, with children growing up in conditions of extreme violence. Nor should the immense trauma caused to countless thousands of children growing up in the political violence of the 1980s and 1990s be overlooked, as such trauma tends to manifest in serious behavioural problems in adulthood. By the 1980s, the extent of abuse and neglect of children of all races led to the establishment of a society addressing these ills (SASPCAN).

Democracy brings little change

The new government inherited a violent, well-armed, criminalised society, with thriving organised crime networks and widespread gangsterism (including in the taxi industry). Huge numbers of children had grown up without adequate role models, suffering abuse and trauma, perpetuating this abuse in their own families when they grew up.

Ironically, the crisis in family life had been acknowledged by the outgoing apartheid government and, in 1987, a comprehensive Family Policy document had been formulated to try to address a plethora of issues. Sadly, this policy was ignored by the democratic government and issues of abuse have gone from bad to worse, alongside increased economic equality. 

The inherited problem of organised crime, never properly addressed, has escalated, providing wealth and status for many, but fuelling criminal violence. Politicians openly flaunting several wives and mistresses, provide unfortunate role models emulated by men lacking economic means to support a single wife and children, let alone many. 

A secure family group of caring adults – which can take many forms, including extended – is where the consciences of young children are shaped, and gender role models are internalised. Far too often appropriate male role models are absent from children’s lives and those who are present may be abusive criminals. 

Among areas of proposed Family Policy intervention were adequate income and quality of life, including housing. However, instead of empowering poor people with skills, and restoring dignity to men through meaningful work, the government has chosen to dispense patronage and handouts. Women’s increasing empowerment remains a challenge to men who feel their inadequacy keenly. We desperately need a shift in economic policy that will empower disadvantaged people and not the elites, many of whom are responsible for the mess we are in.

Many of the drivers on our roads would have long lost their licences if they drove abroad and the government agencies responsible for policing our roads must bear responsibility for much of the carnage. Too many people buy their licences, and drink and drive with impunity. If the police can arrest well over 200,000 people for breaking Covid-19 regulations, why are they not routinely running roadblocks with breathalysers to test and arrest drivers for alcohol infringements? 

Far too many men get away with gender-based violence because many police members do not take it seriously, nor even remove guns from abusive men. Supportive networks for women – and children – need to be proactive in working with victims to ensure justice for them. However, part of a longer-term strategy against this is the deployment of well-trained social workers or counsellors to schools (where some abuse starts), to assist abused learners, and to do proper life-skills training, which would include communication, conflict, and problem-solving skills.

Violence occurs without alcohol, but for some, its use facilitates abuse by lowering inhibitions and giving expression to underlying anger and frustration. A key reason for problem drinking in South Africa is over-indulgence in spirits and binge drinking, especially on an empty stomach, by people who may also be malnourished. Whisky-swilling politicians, together with lifestyle-linked advertising, exert an extremely negative influence. When abuse leads to a casualty ward, a criminal docket should be opened immediately and the culprit prosecuted.

Many of the drivers on our roads would have long lost their licences if they drove abroad and the government agencies responsible for policing our roads must bear responsibility for much of the carnage. Too many people buy their licences, and drink and drive with impunity. If the police can arrest well over 200,000 people for breaking Covid-19 regulations, why are they not routinely running roadblocks with breathalysers to test and arrest drivers for alcohol infringements? 

Should all those who employ people to drive public transport, trucks and lorries not test their employees regularly? It is also time to get serious about speed limits for trucks, lorries and public transport vehicles. Proper regulation of the taxi industry is long overdue and needs urgent attention. The dangerous behaviour of pedestrians suggests that children are not even taught basic road rules in primary school. 

We need to prioritise shifts in economic and social policy, and proper law enforcement. The buck stops with the government, so how much longer are we going to let them keep failing, hopelessly, at the jobs we pay them so well to do? DM

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