/ 15 April 2024

South Africa has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol

Govt Eyes Overhaul Of Alcohol Industry
he relationship South Africa has with alcohol is unhealthy and will continue to the breakdown of society if not checked.

Whether it is consumed at a lekker braai, popping bottles at the club or drinking at an “after tears” to celebrate the life of a deceased loved one, alcohol consumption in South Africa has become an embedded culture. It is socially acceptable to drink in various contexts and South Africans have different motives for drinking alcohol, including to enhance sociability, escape problems or cope with stress and mental health disorders. There is social influence or peer pressure to get drunk for enjoyment or for ceremonial reasons. 

Social attitudes and behaviours encourage the consumption of alcohol as a recreational activity and it is rare to attend a concert, sports game, party or any kind of social event without alcohol featuring in it. Although fewer than a third of South Africans consume alcohol, those who do tend to be  binge drinkers, which essentially refers to people who have more than five standard drinks in one sitting or consume high-percentage alcohol. For instance, drinking a six-pack qualifies a person as a binge drinker.

The drinking culture is unhealthy because the harmful effects of alcohol misuse are far-reaching. There are increasing numbers of car accidents leading to injuries or death; it exacerbates gender-based violence and criminality; breaks down families and the larger society; and is leading to increased alcohol disorders or addictions which many people deny because it is socially acceptable to drink a lot of alcohol. Furthermore, alcoholism has negative economic effects, particularly among the poor because the purchase of alcohol is prioritised to cope with unfortunate lived realities.

It is not a coincidence that South Africa has this kind of drinking culture; there is historical institutionalisation of alcohol consumption and the alcohol industry is well developed to facilitate and encourage alcohol consumption. The dop system contributed to alcoholism in previously marginalised communities.

It originated in the early years of colonial settlement in the Cape colony when indigenous pastoralist and coastal peoples were induced to enter service on settler farms with payment of tobacco, bread and wine. Essentially people were paid with alcohol in lieu of wages. This tradition became an institutionalised element of farming practice, with even child labourers being given wine, until the 1960s when it was abolished but it continued into the 1990s when the ban was enforced. But endemic alcoholism had set in among coloured communities and reproduced itself because children are born into alcoholic contexts.

The term “Isidakwa” was used by mineworkers and migrants to describe a drunkard who had reached addiction level. Alcohol was used as a reward in the mines to comfort mineworkers to accept their miserable living conditions. Alcohol addiction worked in favour of the mine owners because it often forced workers to lengthen their contracts so that they had access to the alcohol given as a reward. Mineworkers who stayed in hostels in Johannesburg would also drink traditional beer sold in the hostels and some mines would encourage them to borrow money to purchase the alcohol.

In the Natal region, 45 municipalities built beer halls that sold traditional beer to black people, which became known as drinking cages and gained popularity because of its ability to generate profit. Taverns, shebeens and drinking halls were established in townships, which promoted a drinking culture. The apartheid government encouraged these beer halls because it became easier to monitor black people. But the first form of resistance to alcoholism in the black community was pushed by women whose men were working in the city and spending money on beer and sending too little home.

Greater resistance started to emerge when women and youth started beer protests against the possible use of beer halls, taverns, shebeens and liquor stores by the apartheid government to break down black communities. They could not tolerate seeing how the system ensured that their husbands and fathers, essentially black men, would continue in a state of drunkenness and their pockets would be emptied by alcohol. 

The system was set up in a way that access to beer was made easy — it formed part of traditional rituals, was used as a means of exchange or payment and featured in social settings — and some beer halls were near train station stops so that after work black men would tend to go to them. While the system was a reality, it is important to not ascribe all of the historical drinking problems of the country and in the black community to state control. Accountability is equally important. People had a choice and some black men decided to use their wages for alcohol.

The concept of “shebeen queen” also came on the rise for rural women arriving in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban to make money. Many of the women would turn their houses into shebeens and brew African beer. This became an attractive business model and helped finance the schooling of children and households’ living costs. While shebeens encouraged drunkenness, they were also viewed as spaces that allowed freedom from white rule and escapism from the realities of apartheid. 

In the early years after democracy was attained, the Marabi rose and Sophiatown culture spread. The shebeen was romanticised in films, songs, soaps and beer ads with messaging that centred on it being a space for escaping and having uniting social interactions. Apartheid post-traumatic stress disorder gave rise to a new wave of a drinking culture to cope with the stresses and mental health.

The second point relates to a well-established industry to facilitate and encourage alcoholism through sales and advertising. The South African liquor industry contributes an estimated R68 billion annually to the fiscus — about 3% of the total GDP. But the harmful effects of heavy drinking costs the country much more. Research conducted in 2014 illustrates a R277 billion yearly cost through the combined effect of health and welfare expenses and indirect costs such as productivity losses from absenteeism. Adjusted for inflation, this equates to an annual cost of R433 billion to the economy in 2023. In other words, the industry contributes 3% to GDP yet the loss to GDP is 10% to 12%. 

 Although alcohol sales and marketing are highly regulated, people are exposed to a variety of alcohol and liquor advertisements. Media exposure helps influence social norms about alcohol through marketing and advertising, product placements, event sponsorships and influencer/celebrity use in movies, television and social media. The relationship South Africa has with alcohol  is unhealthy and will continue to the breakdown of society if not checked.

Karabo Mokgonyana is a legal and development practitioner who focuses on human rights protection, international trade and investment and peace and security.