Africa watches as South Africa falls off the wagon

On the morning of June 1, after two months of state-mandated abstinence, the line to enter one Johannesburg liquor store stretched outside and all the way around the corner. After so long, no one seemed to mind waiting an extra few minutes to buy their favourite bottle.

There was cheering. There was dancing. For some, the opportunity for a few breakfast beers took priority over going to work. “I can’t take chances. I have to get my supply before the shops run out of stock,” said Mkhize Makinta.

One man left the store having filled an entire rucksack and two plastic bags with alcohol. Just a few metres away, his impatience got the better of him. He lowered his face mask, uncapped a beer bottle with his teeth and, with great dexterity, gulped down the entire contents. It took a passing police officer to call him to order.

Such recklessness may explain why South Africa instituted the ban in the first place. Alcohol makes people less likely to obey lockdown regulations, and also fuels domestic violence — a major concern when families are forced to remain at home for prolonged periods. The alcohol ban was lifted after South Africa eased its lockdown restrictions to level 3 at the beginning of this month.

Scenes like these were repeated across the country as boozers waited to get their tipple. As one observer joked: if the government was clever, they would set up Covid-19 testing stations outside liquor stores, which would allow them to test the whole country in three days.

Not everyone waited in line. “Skip the bottle store run — let the drinks come to you,” said Uber Eats in a message to its customers.

Some restrictions remain in place. Alcohol is only allowed to be sold from 9am to 5pm, and only in liquor stores — not in bars or restaurants.

Africa bans fail

South Africa is not the only African country to have instituted restrictions on the sale or consumption of alcohol. In Kenya, an overnight curfew has been repeatedly violated by patrons of bars and nightclubs. Nairobi governor Mike Sonko went even further: he included small bottles of Hennessy in coronavirus care packages delivered to residents.

When Kenya’s government allowed restaurants to re-open, they put in a provision to prevent excessive alcohol consumption, insisting that customers must order a meal before being allowed to drink. No problem, said Kenya’s boozers, some of whom were seen ordering one small burger and several bottles of beer — and then repeating the exercise at other restaurants in the neighbourhood.

In Cameroon, the government initially said that bars and restaurants must close at 6pm while Covid-19 restrictions are in force. This posed no obstacle to serious drinkers. “Since I’m a regular customer in some bars in the neighbourhood, the owners usually allow us to drink behind closed doors. We usually drink there without making much noise till about 10pm,” said Ondoua Michelle, a Yaounde-based bricklayer and farmer.

The bar in question is close to a police station. Instead of enforcing the 6pm closure, officers would often stop by for a drink. Given the lack of enforcement, and following a popular outcry, this restriction was soon scrapped.

Nigeria has yet to implement any kind of liquor ban, but drinkers in Lagos are worried. Just in case, some are working on a plan B: ogogoro, a potent homebrew made from fermented palm sap. One Lagosian said he just can’t imagine a time when his hand would consume more alcohol than his mouth.

Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a media fellow with Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Additional reporting by Doh Betrand in Yaounde, Segun Kasali in Lagos and Robert Kibet in Nairobi.

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Amindeh Blaise Atabong
Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a media fellow with Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation

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