Alcohol in our communities: changing the game
The highlight of my week was a newspaper article about the launch of a community campaign to shut down 1,400 illegal taverns (shebeens) in Khayelitsha, following the tragic death of eight young women, between the ages of 15 – 23, during a stampede at a popular drinking spot called Osi’s.
The campaign is spearheaded by the Social Justice Coalition, and other NGOs seeking to address the devastation wrought by alcohol abuse in Khayelitsha, where there are only 34 licenced taverns and an astonishing 1,400 shebeens.
Some people respond to this statistic by recommending that the province grant more liquor licences. Then, the argument goes, it will be easier to inspect them and enforce their licence conditions.
But Osi’s is a licensed tavern (its licence has now been suspended for serving under-age drinkers). And it is a fallacy to assume that if there are more licenced establishments there will be fewer illegal shebeens. In fact, many outlets prefer to be illegal because they do not then have to comply with licence conditions, which inevitably add overhead costs.
The Western Cape Liquor Authority (WCLA) is very active in seeking to maintain appropriate standards in the licenced liquor retail trade. Between April 2014 and February 2015 the WCLA conducted 3,729 inspections of licensed liquor outlets, issued 446 compliance notices, prosecuted 19 traders, closed down 6, and issued fines running into six figures for breaches of licence conditions.
It is not uncommon to hear accounts of the WCLA issuing a hefty fine for non-compliance to a legal trader, while the unlicensed outlet next door just picks up the trade. And in illegal establishments, it is not uncommon to find school children drinking in school uniform during school hours.
The WCLA can do nothing about this because it only has power over licensed establishments. As the law currently stands, only the police (not even the Metro Police) can raid an illegal shebeen, confiscate the alcohol and arrest the proprietor. The police fall under national government. The province has oversight powers only.
And a growing number of alcohol vendors would prefer to take their chances with the police than with the WCLA.
Although the police confiscate huge volumes of alcohol from illegal outlets every year, the scale of the challenge is too great to manage, given the other priorities and problems of policing.
So what can the Western Cape Government do, given our limited constitutional role? We cannot turn a blind eye because the consequences of alcohol abuse in our province are staggering and absorb so much of the provincial budget.
We must start by making co-operative governance work. Our constitution divides functions between three spheres of governance, and unless we work together, we will never get a grip on the problem. Policing is a national government function, liquor licensing a provincial function, and trading hours a local government function. We all have to be aligned to make a meaningful impact on alcohol abuse.
The statistics are staggering. Alcohol is the most widely abused drug in SA and the most harmful. It is the third-largest contributor to death and disability after sexually transmitted infections (AIDS) and interpersonal violence, both of which are often driven by alcohol consumption. 70% of trauma victims in Western Cape hospitals test positive for alcohol, and an estimated 70% of crimes are linked to substance abuse. When it comes to domestic violence, the causal link is much higher.
According to the latest World Health Organisation comparison of alcohol consumption in different countries, South Africa is “the drunkest country” on the African continent. We consume an average of 11 litres of pure alcohol per person a year. The fact that 65% of South Africans don’t drink at all, gives you some idea of how much those who do drink, actually consume.
Government has to do something, but what? This question is not easy to answer in a democracy that guarantees individual freedom - but also protects people’s rights (including unborn babies) against the abuse of personal freedom by others (including their mothers).
We have scoured the international literature and the conclusion from mountains of research is so simple, it is almost trite. The more available and affordable alcohol is, the more people drink. The higher the alcohol content, the less they have to drink to get drunk. The corollaries of these findings are also true.
Almost everyone agrees that regulation is essential. But this raises another dilemma in a democracy. If the regulatory framework makes it easier and cheaper to operate illegally than legally (as is currently the case), the law itself undermines the rule of law, the very foundation of our democracy.
This does not necessarily mean that the regulatory framework should be relaxed; it may well mean that enforcement should be more rigorous. And, however good the law is, and however rigorous the enforcement, society must play its part. That is why the SJC’s action is so welcome.
No law or regulation can, for example, prevent a pregnant woman spending her night drinking at a tavern -- as was the case with one of Osi’s victims. The 23-year-old was six months pregnant with her second child when she died.
It was telling that in all the justified outrage over this incident, none was directed at the young people’s irresponsibility. And where were the parents of the 15-year-old? No democracy can function successfully without a strong core of social, parental and individual responsibility.
These are some of the dilemmas we have been addressing as we finalise our plan for reducing alcohol-induced harms in the Western Cape. This plan is one of the “game-changers” we have selected for our second term in office. It is a frightening challenge. We have already tried so many interventions that haven’t worked. In the process we have learnt a lot about “unintended consequences”.
For example, when we (in our first term in office) passed a law imposing massive fines on liquor suppliers caught delivering their products to unlicensed shebeens, the suppliers simply “outsourced” deliveries to the “one-man-and-his-bakkie” brigade who could not possibly afford the fines, but were prepared to take the risk.
And the clause that deemed any establishment found with 150 litres of alcohol (or more) to be “trading” in alcohol was simply circumvented by shebeen owners limiting their on-site stores to 149 litres. They stored the rest in neighbouring houses (in separate batches of 149 litres, of course). When a community is prepared to help law-breakers evade justice, it is very difficult to enforce the law.
This does not mean that we won’t keep trying. In order to succeed, it is essential for society as a whole to recognise what a crisis we face and to work together to address it. This cannot be limited to government. Every institution, community, family and individual has a role.
We are currently debating some bold new initiatives to implement for the remaining four years of our second term. If we can reach enough agreement to launch them next month, as we plan to, they will inevitably be controversial. But I believe they are worth a try.
Watch this space.
This article by Helen Zille first appeared in Inside Government, the online newsletter of the Premier of the Western Cape.