Shebeens call the shots in Gauteng

In 2012, at a hearing in Alexandra for the proposed Gauteng Regulations on ­Shebeen Licences, a shebeen owner made it clear he was not happy that there were community members at the meeting. "If community members have a say over this issue, 80% of shebeens will have to close down," he said.

It was an extraordinary and illuminating admission by a shebeen owner that the vast majority of community members were not happy with the presence of shebeens in their neighbourhoods.

On March 1, the Gauteng department of economic development published in the Provincial Gazette Extraordinary 56 the regulations that will govern the long-awaited process of converting shebeen permits to ­shebeen licences.

For those who do not know the background, here is a quick summary. In the mid-2000s, the Gauteng government decided to take control of the ever-increasing problem of illegal liquor outlets in the province. It invited all unregistered liquor outlets to apply for a shebeen permit that would legalise them, allowing them to sell alcohol without fear of action being taken against them. The shebeen permits were supposed to last for a year, after which the registered shebeens would in some way be licensed in terms of the Gauteng Liquor Act of 2003. It did not happen and the validity of the permits was extended a number of times.

Our concern is that the regulations that have now finally been published have not taken into account some of the key issues raised in the hearings and in written submissions.

Foremost among these was a request that the shebeen regulations give communities, the South African Police Service and municipalities the opportunity to object to applications for shebeen licenses. The published regulations give no such opportunity. The comment by the shebeen owner at the 2012 hearing in Alexandra has great significance. If he is right that an empowered community voice would mean that up to 80% of shebeens would have to close because community members would not approve of their applications, the regulations have in effect prevented this from happening.

Access to the economic opportunities
Is this deliberate? We know that one of the objectives of the government policy on liquor is that those who were previously excluded from the liquor industry because of apartheid should now be given access to the economic opportunities offered by the industry. We also know that the department wants to minimise the financial burden on those who want to apply for a shebeen licence.

We do not disagree with these objectives; in fact, we support them. But it should not happen at the expense of the quality of life and the rights and safety of the community.

The Gauteng Liquor Act of 2003 gives community members the right to comment on applications for liquor licences. Applicants must publish their applications in the Government Gazette and in two local newspapers. This means that it is possible — difficult, but possible — for community members and the police to get information about applications and to make a decision on whether to oppose them. Municipalities are consulted directly because there are issues related to zoning rights, land use and planning that have to be taken into account.

However, the new shebeen regulations do not seem to allow the possibility of objections being lodged by anyone, not even municipalities. There is a section that says that the process is subject to clauses in the Gauteng Liquor Act, but only insofar as "prohibitions, exemptions, enforcement and judicial proceedings, offences and penalties, compliance and renewals are concerned".

The regulations state that inspectors will inspect the premises of applicants and that the board must take into cognisance "whether the premises are suitable for the purposes for which they will be used as per the inspectorate report" and, "in the case of a shebeen licence, on consumption, whether there are sufficient toilets and whether meals will be served".

There are no guidelines as to what makes a premises suitable, so it is difficult to see on what grounds an application would be assessed. Also of concern are the following:

• There can now be "off-consumption shebeens", in other words, bottle stores. Because most shebeens are in residential areas, this means that someone can operate a bottle store from their house. And nothing in the regulations seems to prevent an on-consumption shebeen from becoming an off-consumption shebeen.
• There are no restrictions on "entertainment", which means that a shebeen owner is free to play music or even have a live band, once again, in a residential area. Here is one example of how these regulations will disadvantage others. One of the many shebeens in Bellevue has been operating with a shebeen permit since the mid-2000s. It was run fairly well until recently. The music was quiet and the neighbours were not unduly disturbed.

Now things have changed. Younger family members have taken over. Disturbance levels are high. People gather on the pavement in large numbers. The noise is affecting a number of residents in the properties opposite the shebeen. The guest house next door has experienced a decline in business and properties behind the shebeen now hear the noise until the early hours.

The problem is that, under the new regulations, this shebeen can apply for a licence and no one will have the opportunity to object, even though their rights are already being violated.

Maurice Smithers is the executive director of the Yeoville Bellevue Community Development Trust and the secretary of the Yeoville ­Bellevue Ratepayers Association

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