It’s time for shebeens to sober up

Past the urine stench of a waist-high wall fiercely guarded by rows of barbed wire is the side entrance to Chicco's Place in Alexandra township.

On a Monday afternoon three jovial patrons were seated on thinly-padded benches lining the perimeter of the dimly lit shebeen. Then Chicco Muningi appeared — a tall, slender man with glazed eyes, who appeared to be in his thirties.

"Do you know about the new licence requirements for shebeen owners in Gauteng?" I asked.

"Let me show you," he responded and, from a padlocked storeroom stacked with beer crates, he produced a plastic-sheathed temporary shebeen permit. "Two years back, the Liquor Board gave us this paper."

"But did you hear that they are changing the temporary permit system and are going to require a licence?"

Muningi looked blank. "No I didn't hear that," he said.

He was one of three shebeen owners interviewed by the Mail & Guardian in the Johannesburg township and two had not heard of the regulations gazetted on March 1 by the Gauteng department of economic development.

Clamp down on shebeens
Everyone had heard about Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi's contentious plans to increase the drinking age to 21, ban alcohol advertising and, most controversially, stop alcohol sales on Sundays. But very few people knew that the country's wealthiest province had already passed a regulation to clamp down on shebeens.

Motsoaledi's proposed Bill, which is expected to be published soon, is aimed at curbing the country's alcohol consumption levels, which are among the highest in the world. It also aims to reduce the 130 deaths that occur every day from alcohol-related diseases, to target the country's record number of road accidents, in most of which alcohol is involved, and to reduce alcohol-related crime and domestic abuse.

In step with the mood set by the health minister, Gauteng is the first province to pass regulations for the formal licensing of shebeens. About a fifth of the 150 000 shebeens in the country are in Gauteng, and two out of three in the province are illegal.

Analysts believe that the burgeoning illicit trade has a palpable impact on drinking levels in the country where alcohol is considered the fourth-largest cause of premature death.

The new regulation requires that all 30 000 of the province's informal taverns must be licensed by the end of February next year. It outlines trading hours, management requirements and accountability to an inspectorate and highlights parts of the Gauteng Liquor Act, such as zoning and permission requirements, that must be adhered to.

More formally structured licences
The shebeen licences will be more formally structured than the free, informal temporary permits that the Gauteng Liquor Board has allowed shebeens to use and renew for the past nine years. But they are still considerably less stringent than the licensing process that other liquor vendors in the industry have to follow. Although mainstream liquor outlets will be required to fill out a seven-page application, comply with black ownership requirements, pay substantial fees and will need a zoning certificate to operate, shebeen owners will have to fill out a simple three-page application, pay a total of R150 and will not require municipal permission.

The South African Breweries head of communication, Robyn Chalmers, is in favour of the simplified process for shebeens. She said the "many thousands of people" who ran unlicensed outlets struggled to become part of the formal liquor market mainly because of the complexity of the licensing regime.

Adrian Botha, a consultant to the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) agreed. "Getting licensed, in my mind, is the critical factor. That is what will help deal with things like alcohol misuse and abuse." There would be "obvious" social benefits, such as ensuring they did not operate near schools, sell liquor to anyone under the age of 18 or sell to those who are already drunk, he said.

But some feel that the "separate" rules are an indication that shebeens are a law unto themselves.

In research conducted between 2007 and 2009 by a non-profit organisation, Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication, "several communities complained bitterly that [patrons] were spilling on to pavements, having sex in the streets and leaving used condoms lying around, having fights which spilled out into the community, and so forth," Savera Kalideen, the advocacy manager for the organisation, said.

"If people did that in my neighbourhood, they'd be closed down. But apparently they don't have the same expectation for people in townships."

Control on opening and closing times
And some argue this is underscored by the still seemingly lax rules that apply to shebeens. Even the Gauteng Liquor Forum (GLF), which represents about 8 000 shebeens, is calling for licences to tighten up on controls such as opening and closing times. The licence currently stipulates that "on consumption" shebeens (those that require patrons to drink on the premises) can be open from 10am until 10pm from Sunday to Thursday, and until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays.

"We are saying, don't give us a licence that opens at 10am," the forum's general secretary, Mlungisi Majola, said. "We suggest rather make it at 4pm or 5pm. Then at least people are home from work and there are no schoolchildren around."

The Gauteng department of economic development says that the new system will not only have benefits for government but will also have a positive economic impact on shebeens.

Phindile Kunene, the spokesperson for the department, said it would enable them to "grow" and be "recognised by law enforcers as formal businesses". It would also be an improvement on the current system, which had a number of administrative issues and was "open to abuse", she said.

Majola agreed that the new licensing requirements could provide growth opportunities for those outlets that complied with them. But several analysts doubted whether the provincial government would be able to monitor and implement the new licences effectively and thus whether the intended benefits would filter down through the system.

Kalideen said that the Soul City institute had found in 2010 that there were 220 000 liquor outlets in the country and only 49 inspection officers, which was "woefully inadequate".

In draft norms released by the department of trade and industry last year, the number of inspectors was to be increased to 105, but this still means that provinces will have only about 12 inspectors each, and each inspector will have to oversee 2 000 liquor outlets.

Kunene said that the Gauteng Liquor Board would employ an additional 15 inspectors by May this year, which would ensure that the pre-inspections could be conducted within 21 days of a shebeen lodging an application for a licence. An operations centre with 15 more staff was also recently created, but Kunene would not say whether she felt this would be enough people to cope with the huge number of shebeens they hoped would be licensed formally.

Kalideen said that not only provincial but also community monitors were essential. "Legislation is very important, but without community monitors as a paid job and proper policing from the forums it won't improve.

"Liquor boards that get the licence fees should pay the community monitors, because what are they doing with the money from the fees? Or the money could come through policing and result in more police monitors," she said.

Designated liquor police officers
Designated liquor police officers — there is one at every police station — also needed more resources, she said. "We don't have enough backup." The shebeen owners interviewed shared varying stories about police monitoring. Basil Jenerous, who took over Flora's Tavern in Alexandra from her late sister in August last year, has already been fined R1 500 for selling alcohol to patrons who took it off the premises.

Gwen Ngubane, who runs Sello's Place in the same township, has had similar experiences. But she also complained that unlicensed street sellers were left unchecked.

"Other people sell on the streets and you just ask yourself, 'Where are the police? Why don't they fine them?' " she said.

Another shebeen owner admitted to regularly paying R100 bribes to the police to "leave him alone" when his liquor was illegally consumed off the premises.

The Gauteng Liquor Forum, however, wants self-regulation. "We want our members to police themselves," Majola said. "They need to report anyone not complying. That damage is not to themselves, it is to the entire industry."

But, when it comes to alcohol, "responsible trading" is a socially charged subject. In his arguments for regulation change Motsoaledi said alcohol in South Africa cost more than it earned. Independent research commissioned by Soul City corroborates this.

Motsoaledi said that the country spent approximately R39-billion annually addressing alcohol-related social issues. That amount included budget allocations relating to alcohol-related costs regarding road safety, health, correctional services, judicial and crime. But alcohol brought in an income of only R19-billion for the state.

"Show me any person who buys oranges for R39 and sells them for R19 and I will call a psychiatrist," the Daily News reported him as saying.

But many linked to the industry say the cost-benefit argument is misplaced. "I believe that comparing costs versus benefits is not where we should be concentrating our focus," said Botha. "We should rather work together to address the underlying causes of alcohol abuse and misuse in South Africa.

"As [Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi] said at the summit on substance abuse in 2011, unless we address the lack of proper education, unemployment and social deprivation which lead to a sense of hopelessness, we will not effectively reduce alcohol-related harm."

Getting the word out
The general secretary of the Gauteng Liquor Forum, Mlungisi Majola, says the government must insist that all liquor vendors sign up to liquor forums "so that they are taught … the do's and don'ts." "If they are just licensed at random, we are going to have a problem," he said.

Of the three shebeen owners interviewed, the only one who had heard about the new licence requirements was Basil Jenerous, who was also the only member of a liquor forum. Jenerous attends the Thembisa Liquor Forum meetings every second Wednesday. The forum passed on details of the requirements and timeframes for the new licence, and she was gearing up her tavern to meet them. An "on consumption" licence requires a place for patrons to sit, male and female ablution facilities and light meals to be served.

"I am not quite there, but almost," she said. "When the inspector arrives, I will be 100%."

In contrast, Chicco Muningi, who had not heard about the licences, said he was not a member of any forums "because it is expensive. You have to pay, I think, about R150 per year."

He said that South African Brewery sales representatives who sold him his beer had helped him get his current permit. "They help me a lot with these things," he said.


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Thalia Holmes
Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.

She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.

After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. 

The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. 

She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.     

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