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The alcohol ban worked, even as it wreaked economic havoc – so let’s find a lasting compromise


Oliver Dickson is a political commentator and broadcaster, formerly hosting Late Night Talk on Radio 702. He is also a former competitive debater having ranked as the best debater in Africa at the African Championships.

South Africa does not have a unique drinking problem, but we do have a unique crisis management culture. Violence and injuries stemming from alcohol abuse can be mitigated with the right political will.

There is no doubt that banning the sale of alcohol when the pandemic hit South Africa, and during the Covid-19 peak, was perhaps the most drastic of measures taken by President Cyril Ramaphosa and the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC).

There is also little doubt that the ban was necessary and that its results were almost immediately seen. Empty intensive care units (ICUs), a drastic drop in violent crime, and a reduction in car accidents. The results were so positive that it almost makes the idea of a permanent ban on alcohol an attractive prospect – something politicians like the ANC’s Panyaza Lesufi considered long before Covid-19, as he maintained when I interviewed him on Radio 702 while standing in for Eusebius McKaiser.

But along with the benefits of the alcohol ban came devastating economic consequences. 

When the first ban was lifted, President Ramaphosa and the NCCC soon had to reinstate it at the insistence of medical professionals dealing with crowded trauma units and ICUs, and police who had to deal with a surge of violent crimes, drunk drivers and people ignoring lockdown regulations.

The reinstating of the alcohol ban was arguably a desperate but necessary measure – if we were to assume that there was no alternative. But the fact is, we had alternatives.

While the ban was in place, more than 120,000 jobs were lost and a further 1.1 million were placed at risk. Hundreds of small businesses had to close and, while some have managed to stay afloat and reopen under lockdown Level 2, many will not be reopening. This, amid a R19-billion loss in GDP to the economy.

While these numbers may seem terrible today, their impact will outlast Covid-19. Many families had to take out loans to pay rent and school fees, and with a projected 7% to 10% economic downturn, many of these short term loans will become long term loans. Some families will fall into debt cycles lasting between 10 and 20 years. Lenders, too, are vulnerable to people defaulting on their debts.

Any non-clinical steps taken to fight the pandemic should be considered not for their impact today, but for their effect years down the line.

The government made various financial instruments available to assist businesses and families impacted by the economic downturn – instruments such as financial bailouts for businesses and employees through the Unemployment Insurance Fund, tax breaks and loan guarantees through the banks, but that was never going to be nearly enough given the scale of the devastation. And most of this money, with the exception of loan guarantees, has already run dry.

With most sectors of the economy already having reopened, the alcohol industry was the last to get the green light.

The alcohol industry (and its associated value chain) was clearly not the only sector impacted by the State of Disaster regulations, but it sure was a low-hanging fruit for the government when it came to its Covid-19 response.

When Ramaphosa recently announced the second lifting of the ban on the sale of alcohol, he prefaced it with Covid-19 stats. An increase in our recovery rate (above the global average), a reduction in the number of new cases, and a reduction in the number of deaths – it was these figures to which the president attributed his decision.

However, he conveniently left out the part that the government has also been testing less. A month before his last speech, an average of 40,000 people were being tested every day. By the time he delivered his speech, that number had dropped to around 15,000.

The reduction in testing has become a bone of contention among critics and opposition parties, with many claiming that the true horror of the situation will become clear once testing is boosted.

But assuming the numbers we are presented with are a true reflection of reality, we still have to worry about the possibility of more waves of Covid-19. Almost every country, even New Zealand, has experienced a recurrence of outbreaks. There is very little evidence suggesting South Africa will be spared.

On the contrary, if the past weekend is anything to go by, we will almost certainly experience more surges. This was the first weekend since the ban was lifted, and hangout spots across the country saw a flood of people through their doors, drinking way past the curfew, neglecting to wear their masks, and not caring for physical distance. 

But the question then is, should the NCCC and the government respond in the same panicky fashion as they did when they reinstated the alcohol ban? The answer is a big “no”. We can no longer be happy with temporary solutions that have permanent far-reaching ramifications. That is lazy and uncreative policy making and regulatory performance.

Violence stemming from alcohol consumption can be mitigated with the right political will. If the police and law enforcement agencies focused their energies on what they know to be flashpoints, they would be able to nip most cases in the bud before they could escalate into stabbings and shootings.

If the SAPS, Metro police and traffic officers faced real consequences for accepting bribes from drunk drivers, we almost certainly would have fewer accidents involving people who drive over the limit. This would mean less of a burden on medical staff. The government’s non-clinical regulatory efforts should be directed towards fixing that immediately.

More than that, if doctors are complaining that they do not have enough ICU beds for Covid-19 patients because they are being occupied by people involved in alcohol-related incidents, we should ask ourselves, do we have enough ventilators to begin with – again, the answer is “no”. 

The South African public healthcare system is grossly under-resourced and undermanaged. We need to seriously capacitate our healthcare system for national disasters and continuously stress test it to ensure that we are prepared.

Sure, this costs money. The billions in lost tax revenue due to the alcohol and tobacco bans could have gone a long way towards purchasing ventilators and equipping hospitals.

But perhaps the most important step of all is taking seriously the project of engineering a society that does not overindulge in alcohol, and one that takes responsible drinking seriously. That is where the burden falls on all of us, not just the government. We must hold ourselves and our friends and families accountable when they drink and step out of line.

Making sure people don’t drink and drive, and doing what we can to curb violence, are perhaps the best ways you and I can keep open the doors of small businesses that depend on alcohol sales for their survival. DM


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