by MTHULISI SIBANDA
JOHANNESBURG – BY imposing a lockdown against the spread of the invisible enemy, as coronavirus (COVID-19) is also known, South Africa is essentially killing two birds with one stone.
While the virus that is spreading rapidly in Africa’s most advanced economy is an invisible foe, alcohol is a hard-hitting assassin in the country, claiming lives directly and secondarily through health complications, traffic accidents, murder and other violent criminalities that have earned the country the unenviable tag as the “crime capital” of the world.
South African consumers of alcohol have a reputation as some of the heaviest drinkers globally and the ongoing 35-day lockdown to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore this long-running problem in the Southern African country.
No sooner had President Cyril Ramaphosa late last month announced the National State of Disaster and lockdown (initially for 21 days) than mobs went on the rampage looting some liquor stores around the country.
The alleged connivance with police officers in the vandalism also exposed rampant corruption within the force.
Ahead of the lockdown, there was pandemonium as some members of the public thronged liquor stores to stockpile on alcoholic beverages.
The lockdown and subsequent outlawing of the sale of alcohol – and tobacco products – has also led to the emergence of a black market for liquor, despite stringent measures government has enforced including jail terms for culprits that violate the decree.
Without justifying police and military brutality, which the government has also condemned, some incidents of brutality have emanated from some violators of the lockdown daring law enforcers while under the influence.
The latest in the series of events highlighting the alcohol pandemic has been a threat by the Gauteng Liquor Forum to take the government to the Constitutional Court to challenge the validity of the sale of these products.
The forum claims to represent 20 000 liquor businesses, including shebeens.
“The prohibition on the selling of alcohol during the lockdown period is at the epicentre of the present challenge by our clients,” the forum stated.
It pointed out its clients do not have other means of surviving while the lockdown continues. Yet, the government has made funds available to small, micro and medium enterprises, including liquor outlets to ensure sustainability during the lockdown, as well as support employees of these enterprises.
The Beer Association of South Africa has also written to Ramaphosa seeking the lifting of the ban
Undeterred by threats of legal action, the government has declined the request.
“The restriction on the sale of liquor will remain,” the Presidency stated in response that the State Attorney’s Office relayed to the Gauteng Liquor Forum.
In reaching the decision, the office of the State Attorney explained it weighed up the liquor body’s request to the imperative of all South African businesses and citizens to comply with the lockdown regulations, health implications of consumption of alcohol and the priority to ensure social distancing during this principle.
“As such, alcohol is not considered an essential good or item. It is in fact considered a hindrance to the fight against the Coronavirus,” the response read.
The National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) has also endorsed the ban on the sale of alcohol because of its health implications and proven links to an increase in violent crime, motor vehicle accidents, medical emergencies which results in full emergency rooms and hospitals.
South Africa cannot afford any further strain to an inundated health system as the COVID-19 cases rise rapidly.
There are already more than 3 000 cases and over 50 deaths as of the beginning of the week.
“In the face of a pandemic such as COVID-19, the experience of the rest of the world has shown us that hospitals need to be prepared to receive and treat vast numbers of Covid-19 patients and to quarantine them from non-infected patients,” NCCC stated.
The Gauteng Liquor Forum has taken a step back, disclosing it would not “at the moment” continue with its contemplated legal action.
It appears the forum is awaiting the end of the lockdown on April 30 before making its next move.
Recently, the government attributed the reduction of some violent crimes and traffic accidents during the Easter holiday to the ban on the sale of liquor.
Police Minister, Bheki Cele, said the number of murder cases had dropped from 326 a year ago to 94 over the past month.
Rapes declined from 699 to 101 while assaults fell from 2 673 to 456.
Transport Minister, Fikile Mbalula, announced a drop in Easter traffic fatalities from 162 last year to 28. Traffic accidents dropped from 128 to 26.
Data by the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that South African alcohol consumers are among the heaviest drinkers globally.
About 60 percent of the consumers are binge drinkers.
Besides traffic crashes, there are fatal health issues such as liver cirrhosis and cancer, which claim about 10 000 in South Africa, on average, yearly.
– CAJ News