It is mid-month at my local shopping complex in the Area W township, Francistown, and the place has more watering holes than supermarkets.
Before the government implemented its draconian 30% alcohol levy, this place was a hive of activity, even in the no-money countdown to the end of the month.
But since our teetotalling President Ian Khama went for an alcohol levy as a way to save the nation from car accidents, chronic illness, bad behaviour and similar alcohol-related mishaps, the good stuff has become too expensive for most Batswana.
Initially Khama’s government had wanted to impose a whopping 70% on all alcoholic beverages. Tipplers were delighted when Kgalagadi Breweries Limited (KBL) took the bully government by its horns and dragged it to the high court to stay the implementation of the levy.
They shouted bravo to the fearless brewer and its sister company, Botswana Breweries Limited (BBL). The BBL deals with the famously strong local brew, Chibuku. How short-lived their excitement was. The levy was reduced, but to 30%, which has still forced regulars to change — though not necessarily curtail — their drinking habits.
Inside the Boiteko Bottle Store and Bar a bartender sits on a stool reading an old newspaper. She tells me she reads a lot of papers since business took a nosedive after November 1 last year when the levy was imposed.
On the other side of the counter a customer makes a 750ml quart of Black Label last. It takes what seems an eternity for him to take a gulp from the bottle. Another customer pops in and orders a 340ml bottle of Windhoek Lager.
Drinking patterns had to change, they tell me. Those who were used to drinking beer cans are now drinking quarts because a quart of Black Label, they say, works out at better value than a can of St Louis. Even though the quart costs 12 pula to the St Louis can’s seven pula, the quart bottle is returnable and a customer gets back a one pula deposit — plus it can be shared by at least two people. One pula is the equivalent of just more than R1.
Tipplers who once drank popular brands such as St Louis, Castle, Hansa or Heineken have switched to Windhoek Lager, which costs just six pula. It is the cheapest mainstream beer in the country because it is brewed over the border. Other drinkers caught in the mid-month money squeeze turn their loyalties to Chibuku, the traditional local brew. The preferred beer of the working classes, Chibuku, even after the levy, is a bargain at 4.50 pula a litre and it is common to find five friends sharing one.
If Chibuku is not for you, you are not lost. There are cheap South African wines like Tassenberg or Autumn Harvest. Those who live in towns can also visit the nearest Pick n Pay to buy a No Name one-litre box of wine. The prices for these ‘poisonsâ€ range from 12 to 30 pula. In these bad times of recession, alcohol levies and reduced liquor trading hours, drinkers have realised that no man is an island. You ought to have drinking buddies to rescue you when you are broke and drinking alone is frowned on these days.
The levy has severely affected our drinking sisters. It is a universal rule that ladies prefer drinking cider to lager. They enjoy brands like Hunters Gold, Hunters Dry, Smirnoff Spin or Savanna. Ciders range from 8.50 to 10.50 pula. Consequently, the bartender reports, it is no longer surprising to spot a lass downing a quart of Carling Black Label with pride. Unbelievable! Before the levy Black Label was strictly for the ladies of the night from neighbouring Zimbabwe.
There are also women who have stooped to drinking Chibuku. Alcohol, after all, is alcohol, and when you drink to get high — which most people do, especially when they add the alcohol levy to their general sorrows — how you get up there makes no difference. Many who previously would have avoided Chibuku now drink a litre of it before visiting one of the nearest pubs to scrounge a quart of beer from patrons and friends. A visit to some local shebeens confirms this.
Who can blame them? Whisky and brandy are said to be for the ‘hotel classâ€. With the levy tacked on to already expensive brands, a 750ml bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky now costs 144 pula from one of the Spars in town, whereas a same-size bottle of Klipdrift brandy is 99 pula.
Oarabile Mosikare is a reporter for Mmegi and Monitor newspapers. He lives in Francistown, Botswana