Alcohol and tobacco: Time for a reality check


Calls to end the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco sales during South Africa’s lockdown have been rejected. Both drugs have detrimental costs for society and a reduction in their use would be beneficial. But right now, our priority should be to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and the catastrophe threatening townships and informal settlements.

Three interlinked issues point to the booze and fags ban being counterproductive to efforts to flatten the infection curve: the underground economy of the townships; the nexus between public-health messages and social control; and the grassroots politicisation of government assistance. I sketch these issues before addressing the government’s prohibition policy.

Townships’ underground economy

Although suburban residents may be initially at a loss over sourcing alcohol and tobacco when sale is prohibited, township residents can resort to a lively underground economy. Before the lockdown, this catered largely for “back-door” goods, untaxed cigarettes and cannabis. These have always been easy to obtain, if you ask around. Post-prohibition, these networks have been supplemented by residents brewing alcoholic beverages from a range of ingredients for themselves — and for sale.

For many township men, their social life revolves around sociability lubricated by alcohol, tobacco and zol. Although the socialising may be gendered, these men are also fathers, sons and brothers to the families they live with. And although the authorities may be able control “pinch points”, such as entrances to townships, they have limited control over movement within neighbourhoods. The lockdown has increased the number of waking hours men spend in the township and, it’s hard, given limited recreational options, to be both idle and sober.

The prohibition is reflected in price hikes in the informal economy. In East Rand townships, the cost of loose (single) untaxed cigarettes has doubled, while a 750ml bottle of spirits, previously retailing for R150, now costs R300 or more. Given the price inelasticity of these goods, prohibition may well lead to higher spending on these items and, consequently, less on food or other necessities.

Public health and social control messages 

Restrictions on movement, gatherings and shopping are designed to reduce the spread of the virus — public health messages aim to reinforce this by shifting individuals’ behaviour. Smoking township-style carries a real public health risk in the era of coronavirus: the culture of skeif! If you are smoking and somebody with the remotest social connection says ‘Skeif!’ then it’s all but an obligation to share. It’s part of the sociability of township life. 

There needs to be messaging that sharing cigarettes (or joints) is going to spread the virus. But it’s not easy to tell people not to share cigarettes when you’ve just told them that they can’t smoke because they can’t buy fags. Such a message is going to be, at best, convoluted. We end up with the worst of both: cigarettes are still available, but without behavioural change around how they are being smoked.

Although alcohol reduces inhibitions and increases risky social contract, outright prohibition has been responded to by the black market and home-for-sale brewing. As well as the risk of happy drinkers sharing intimate space, township culture means the frequent sharing of bottles and glasses. There is a similar situation as with cigarettes; ineffective regulations and stymied public-health messaging. And, to make this worse, instead of weekends being the peak of township drinking, the lockdown has made it every day.

Politicisation of grassroots assistance

At the national level there has been considerable peak-level co-operation between political parties: a united front in the fight against the coronavirus. It should not, however, be assumed that this translates to the local, where the real political contests are not between political parties, but between factions within the governing party. 

Delivering food parcels through councillors is becoming mired in the same patronage politics that plagues service delivery. If you are not a “special” — that is, in some way important to your councillor — then you are going to be at the end of the queue for relief, if you are in the queue at all. Even if councillors are even-handed, perceptions of cronyism and corruption are now so deep-seated that it will likely be assumed that they aren’t.

This is an argument for delivering relief through bureaucratic systems, such as child-support grants, rather than high-profile, patronage-inciting food parcels. Indeed, food parcels in the hands of councillors may well do more harm than good in entrenching feelings of exclusion and justifying participation in self-help activities such as looting. This is not surprising; it follows the same logic as service-delivery protests in which factions of the community demand a share of whatever is available.

The regulations should be relaxed

What does this all mean for national lockdown policies on alcohol and tobacco? Current policies and practices are creating a pressure-cooker environment in the townships, while having limited success with public-health responses to the epidemic. Indeed, the regulations are in some cases preventing effective public-health intervention.

The government’s policy is to keep the lid of the pressure cooker tightly sealed. But this will need an increasingly authoritarian hand and set up a cycle of repression-by-regulation responded to with subversion and defiance. To maintain the lockdown, food deliveries will need to be escorted into townships and the klopjags of apartheid policing reintroduced to supress home-brewing. Yet all this will achieve is the pretence of a lockdown, while effective behavioural-change messaging, taking into account the cultural practices of townships, will be crowded out.

Much described in this article should not be happening. Cigarettes, for example, should be taxed; shouldn’t be sold loose; and, ideally, shouldn’t be smoked at all. But now is not the time for grandstanding. We need a dose of realism as to how South Africans actually live and we need to respond with policies that take these realities into account.

There are good arguments for keeping taverns and shebeens closed during the lockdown, given the impossibility of maintaining physical distance in these venues, but off-licence sales should be allowed during the day and the sale of tobacco normalised. Such a relaxation could be packaged as a social pact: sales are permitted but we must stop sharing for the duration of the pandemic.

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David Dickinson
David Dickinson is professor of sociology at Wits University. When not locked down, he is a regular visitor and part-time resident in South African townships

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