The City of Johannesburg’s Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) Festive Season Campaign is based on a commitment by South Africa Breweries to “support responsible driving” and has involved the donation of some mobile breathalysers.
It takes only a moment to realise that this is a cynical manipulation of the realities of our problem with alcohol, binge drinking and the so-called festive season. The SAB message at this time of year has for a long time centred on the notion of taking a cab when drunk. The more appropriate message for the City is “don’t get drunk”.
Driving dangerously is only one of the ills of binge “festive” drinking. The risks and harms include, but are not confined to: interpersonal violence; loss of inhibition resulting in humiliation and often in harm; sexual activity that will later be regretted (bearing in mind that women are deemed not to be able to consent to sex when drunk); unwanted pregnancy; sexual assault; loss of productivity; inability to work; spending of money that cannot be afforded, often at the cost of nutritious food and basics for children; child neglect and abuse; loss of life through alcohol-related diseases; and road accidents.
We have the world’s highest rate of foetal alcohol syndrome, meaning that many children will carry the damage with them throughout their lives.
The City of Johannesburg should also be more discerning in choosing its partners. SAB has no need of the free advertising; its revenues over the festive season are by far superior to the resources underpinning the City’s festive season plans. What it gains in association with JMPD and therefore the City as a whole, the City loses twofold in public respect, independence and professionalism.
In the course of my work as an urban safety practitioner, I am exposed to the terrible harm that alcohol wreaks on individuals, families, communities and our society as a whole. The trauma and secondary trauma caused by accidents and incidents, not only on the road, but in public places and homes, feeds into our collective anxiety, and the depression and neglect of many.
Far from the aspirational images that accompany alcohol advertising — and credit where it’s due, SAB has used our national heroes, our flag and the beauty of our country in some stunning advertisements over time — the reality is that alcohol is one of our most intractable and deeply concerning inter-generational problems.
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Children learn to love by being loved, they learn to trust by being treated in a trustworthy manner. They also learn violence through exposure to violence. Parenting is difficult enough when stone-cold sober — when a parent or both parents are drinking, drunk or hungover, good parenting is impossible.
And children learn to drink by watching the adults around them. Consumption of alcohol is seen as an adult activity and many adults refer to drinking by their vulnerable teenagers as “a rite of passage”, as though there is no other route to becoming an adult. Children learn to drink from people who drink.
In workshops where the scourge of alcohol is top of community agendas, everyone laughs about it. I often wonder if the laughter is born in shame or embarrassment; certainly it’s no laughing matter.
People rarely know how much they spend on alcohol, or what percentage of their disposable income goes to it. This is most likely because they don’t want to know, as it is invariably too much. Statistics tell us that less than 40% of South Africans consume alcohol yet those who do more than make up for it. It is in the interests of SAB and others in their industry, to attract new and young first-time drinkers, and we see that reflected in new products, advertising and in pricing.
So here we are, with our City committing scarce public funds to providing free advertising to a business that promotes not sobriety or even moderation in drinking, but instead suggests that we should not drive when we are drunk.
We have in South Africa world-renowned researchers into the behaviour of South African drinkers. The Medical Research Council engages globally with experts on how to reduce alcohol harms. Yet the City chooses to engage and promote a brewery. There can be no justification for this.
As a ratepayer in Johannesburg and someone dedicated to public safety, I ask that the City reconsiders this partnership and removes the SAB logo from their social media and from their in-person events.
JMPD further appears to be conducting this campaign by blocking highways with a large show of police officers (SAPS and Metro Police) at peak traffic times. There are so many more useful things for these officers to be doing, in a city where smash-and-grabs at traffic lights, bike-jackings, muggings and other offences make both the roads and the sidewalks danger zones. Even addressing the lack of compliance with by-law infringements such as littering in our roads and road reserves would create an improved perception of safety.
If JMPD needs partners for their campaign, perhaps they might look to promote the tireless work of national or local NGOs who aim to counter the powerful advertising of the alcohol industry. Many of them have no advertising budget and would be very grateful for the exposure, while offering real value in return.
If the City wants to see a safe and healthy festive season, it should set the record straight on the dangers and risks associated with alcohol, binge drinking and its consequences. A safe festive season is not one in which people don’t drive when they drink, it is one where people drink considerably less than they do, now and at other times of the year.
A focus on the safety and well-being of children in Joburg would be so much better and would surely reflect well on JMPD and the City, as well as contributing to the safety of those to whom we owe at the very least a happy festive season. DM