Should alcohol be in schools?

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Alcohol harm and its implications for society are a significant challenge in South Africa, with youth drinking an issue of particular concern. Despite this, government is now proposing that legislation be passed which will allow alcohol to be served or sold on school premises and at school activities off school premises for fund-raising purposes. However, a panel of experts recently warned of the many dangers of doing so in a webinar sponsored by the Southern Africa Alcohol Policy Alliance in South Africa  (SAAPA SA) and hosted by the Mail & Guardian.

The panel said that, although the legislation will not allow learners access to alcohol, having alcohol on school premises will be a temptation for them. They argued that alcohol use in society is already “normalised” through advertising and social practice, so having it available at schools will normalise its use even further in the eyes of learners; that it is unlikely that the use of alcohol will be monitored and controlled properly; and that any benefits in the form of money raised are unlikely to outweigh the harm that it is likely to cause. 

SAAPA SA is a collaboration of civil society organisations across South Africa; it is a network that aims to promote the harmonisation and acceleration of evidence-based alcohol policy development and implementation in South Africa and in the Southern African region.

‘Even thinking of allowing the sale of alcohol on school premises shows that the government is not taking the health of our people seriously’

Moderator Pontsho Pilane kicked off the webinar by providing some historical context to the current state of liquor legislation in South Africa. Proposed new laws which would make a positive contribution to efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm have been on hold for many years — the Control of Marketing of Alcohol Beverages Bill of 2013, the Road Traffic Amendment Bill of 2015, and the Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016, which was intended to give effect to the national Liquor Policy approved by Cabinet in 2016. 

The law which proposes that schools be allowed to have alcohol on school premises for fund-raising purposes — the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill — is being processed and is likely to be passed within the next 12 to 18 months. It is currently being considered by Parliament, who have invited the public to make written and oral submissions on the Bill. The Bill proposes amendments to a number of education-related Acts and includes a wide range of suggestions, only one of which is the proposal to allow alcohol at schools. 

Jane Borman, Parliamentary Researcher for Equal Education, said the BELA Bill as a whole is of great importance for communities. It proposes major changes to education legislation and will be the backbone of school law for the next decade or so, so any proposed changes must be scrutinised closely and, if necessary, challenged by concerned stakeholders.

“For example, allowing alcohol at schools could have a lasting detrimental effect on learners, impact learner safety and disrupt the school space, a space that is aimed at nourishing and protecting children,” warned Borman. 

She said we have an important opportunity now to ensure that this amendment is not passed. Equal Education is concerned about the effect it will have on learners, particularly because proper monitoring of the use of alcohol by schools will likely not take place. Alcohol abuse is rampant and widespread in South Africa, and the wellbeing of learners is already at risk, particularly in disadvantaged communities. Bringing such problems onto school premises is thus the wrong thing to do.

Equal Education is concerned about the wording of the amendment to the BELA Bill, which is too vague. The organisation also worries that learners, teachers and communities have not been properly consulted. Even if the storage and use of alcohol on school premises and at school events is properly instituted and monitored, children may still encounter adults under the influence. “It is clear that the harm that this amendment may cause will far outweigh any benefits that it may bring.”

Pilane said the government must take into consideration local and international studies on this issue, and not be swayed by lobbyists who stand to benefit financially from the proposed amendment to the BELA Bill. 

Professor Neo Morojele, Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Johannesburg, did a short presentation on alcohol and youth in South Africa. The country has one of the  highest per capita rates of alcohol consumption in the world and in Africa; and the majority is consumed in binge drinking situations. More than half of young South Africans use alcohol, with many drinking excessively. About half of all homicides in the country are due to drinking, and nearly 40% of road traffic deaths are alcohol-related. Excessive drinking also leads to increased interpersonal violence, bullying, GBV and risky sexual behaviour. 

There is an unhealthy culture of drinking in South Africa and it is apparent that the more available alcohol is, the more likely it is that young people will drink it. To minimise alcohol consumption at schools, therefore, it should not be allowed on the premises. School policies and culture can play a large role in alcohol consumption among the youth. “The question is, are the benefits of having alcohol in schools worth the risks to the learners?” asked Morojele.

Pilane pointed out that South African children are already exposed to alcohol consumption and the abuse it engenders in their communities and homes. Gauteng has legislation preventing alcohol being sold within 500m of schools, but this is not enforced. The result is that many schools have alcohol outlets very close to them, resulting in the challenge of both learners and teachers taking advantage of their proximity to buy alcohol and consume it on school premises. This sort of problem is likely to get worse if alcohol is allowed onto school premises.  

Shaheda Omar, Clinical Director at the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, said the clinic is very passionate about the health and safety of children. What the clinic is seeing is that alcohol use and abuse begins early in South Africa, often from age 12, while the brain is still in formation. The most influential role models are parents and educators. It is hard to prevent children from experimenting with alcohol, but adults can discourage them from doing so through active interventions and through being positive role models. “The safest level of drinking for children is not drinking at all, and that should be the consistent message delivered,” said Omar. 

“We need to educate children about the harmful effects of alcohol from an early age. At the clinic, we deal with children who become pregnant at an early age; we see children who have been neglected, or abused by drunk parents, and there are few restrictions on children obtaining alcohol. This is a real problem, particularly because alcohol affects the brains of developing children, putting them at risk of becoming addicted for the rest of their lives.” 

Omar said that children learn from what they see, and if educators are allowed access to alcohol on school premises, children will mimic their behaviour. There should be zero alcohol at any school event. The subliminal message in adverts is that without alcohol, there is no fun, or that it is the panacea for all ills, and this message sinks deep into young minds. If there is alcohol at school events, it will persuade children that alcohol is a “normal” part of life. 

She added that alcohol affects children on many levels: lack of performance, lack of inhibitions, and poor school attendance. Children who start drinking early often become life-long problem drinkers as adults. Omar said the clinic deals with abuse on a daily basis; one case they had lately was of a boy whose drunk father beat him with a steel pole until he passed out; another case involved educators giving alcohol to girls and then sexually abusing them. “We recognise that schools need to raise funds, and that the sale of alcohol at events is seen as an easy money-spinner, but the presence of alcohol normalises its consumption, and we need to put the health of children foremost. So we need to find other ways of raising funds,” she said. 

Reverend Tsepo Matubatuba said that alcohol results in a number of social ills, leading to car crashes, acts of violence and other forms of harmful behaviour. This was clearly illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns when alcohol was not available. Hospital beds were freed up for Covid-19 cases, because they were not occupied by alcohol-related  trauma patients. HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections are also spread by drunk people who engage in risky sexual behaviour, putting their health and lives at risk. 

“There is a culture of celebrating success with alcohol consumption, of believing that, without alcohol, it is not a real celebration. It’s the same with initiation ceremonies. When boys return from initiation, alcohol is often made freely available to them, to the point that they get hopelessly drunk. This defeats the purpose of initiation which is to help boys to transition from being children to responsible adults. So we need to change our mindset and develop new and safer ways of doing things,” said Matubatuba.

Working in communities, he said, we find many children affected by alcohol consumption. Some children are neglected; others have to be adopted, while many grow up in child-headed households. Raising money to fund education through selling alcohol at school events is a contradiction in terms, as the same schools teach children that alcohol is not good for them. This is not the way to raise funds. 

In her closing remarks, Borman said that Equal Education will be making a submission to Parliament on the BELA Bill, and they will include comments on the proposals to allow alcohol at schools, calling on them to be scrapped. “The more opposition there is to these amendments, the more likely it is they will be dropped,” she said. 

Professor Morojele added: “We have a long way to go in addressing the harms of alcohol, for the youth and in society in general, and even thinking of allowing the sale of alcohol on school premises shows that the government is not taking the health of our people seriously. Young people’s futures are being sacrificed in the interests of raising funds. How this can happen is a mystery.”

Omar reiterated that there have been studies that demonstrate clearly the link between alcohol, abuse of women and children, and general violence. There is often a generational recycling of the harmful use of alcohol — children who were abused by drunk parents do the same to their own children. Morojele also pointed out that, when alcohol is too easily available and not properly controlled, learners who drink end up dropping out of school, thereby jeopardising their own futures. 

Matubatuba said it was necessary to take awareness of the proposed amendments in the BELA Bill to people at grassroots level, not just discuss it in academic gatherings. It is important that everyone knows about them, because everyone who has a child or children in school is affected.

Pilane said in closing that we must practise what we preach — parents must be part of efforts to find a solution to the harmful use of alcohol. 

She reminded participants that members of the public can write to SGBs at their children’s schools, to their provincial governments, or directly to the minister to express their concerns about proposed amendments to the BELA Bill. Information on the Bill can be found at https://pmg.org.za/bill/1055/.

SAAPA SA has launched a petition calling on the Minister to keep schools as alcohol-free zones. The petition can be found at www.amandla.awethu.mobi. Readers are encouraged to sign it and to share it with friends and colleagues. Objections must be submitted to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Basic Education by 15 June 2022 and can be sent to the Secretary at [email protected].

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