Let’s make a greater effort to protect the youth

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The Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in South Africa (SAAPA SA) joins the rest of South Africa in commemorating the 2020 anniversary of the 1976 Soweto student uprising. 44 years ago, people and institutions symbolising apartheid oppression were targeted by determined students who first took to the streets on 16 June, starting a wave of resistance that didn’t stop until the advent of democracy in 1994. Institutions under fire over the next few days of the uprising were municipal beerhalls, with some students venting their frustration on bottle stores and shebeens as well.

One activist at the time said: “You have more bottle stores than clinics (in Soweto). Every railway station … has a bottle store. When our parents leave work with their pay which is very meagre, they immediately buy liquor and then go home without money … If you go to Soweto you will find that every small location has a bottle store and a big beerhall. But since the 16th of June, bottle stores no longer function because the first targets were bottle stores.” (la Hausse 1988, p66)

According to the organisation leading the sustained attack on the apartheid system, the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC): “A number of lives have been lost because of the operation of these shebeens. Salaries have not reached home because they were first opened in shebeens. Futures have been wrecked by the operation of these shebeens and our fathers and brothers have been killed in or out of them. Hundreds of our colleagues have become delinquents … shebeen kings and queens have become capitalists … We can no longer tolerate seeing our fathers’ pay-packets emptied in shebeens.” (la Hausse 1988, p66)

In Alexandra, the Alexandra Student’s League (ASL) went around to night clubs and other alcohol outlets, rescuing young women who had been enticed there. “So obviously we were not popular with the nightclub owners and shebeen owners.” (Bonner and Nieftagodien 2008, p213).

Today, of course, the major issue confronting our society is the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide efforts to control the spread of the virus. But, as in June 1976, alcohol is also on the agenda in June 2020.

To slow the infection rate and protect the population, the South African government decided to ban the transportation and sale of alcohol while the country was under lockdown. 

The results were significant: according to medical personnel, public health researchers, government officials, the media and the public, there was a drop in almost all crime types, including alcohol-related interpersonal violence and road crashes, and admissions to trauma units in hospitals were reduced to a minimum.

Since 1 June, however, the country has moved into Level 3 and the sale of alcohol is once again permitted, subject to restricted days and hours of sale and only for drinking at home. The consequences of this decision are very disturbing: drinking and driving have recommenced, causing a number of deaths within days of the lifting of the ban; interpersonal violence is on the rise; hospital trauma unit staff, spared “the familiar smell of the combination of alcohol and blood” for over two months, must once again get used to it, according to a doctor in a public hospital. 

There is also a very real risk that the infection rate will rise as a result of the abandonment by drinkers of Covid-19 protective measures such as physical distancing, coughing etiquette and personal hygiene. But the hospital beds that will be needed by the increasing number of coronavirus patients are filling up with victims of alcohol-related harm.

The harmful use of alcohol is a particular problem amongst the youth of our country, many of whom are unemployed and living in challenging conditions. On this June 16, SAAPA SA calls on government to protect our youth – and indeed all people living in South Africa  from the surge in alcohol-related harm and the threat it poses for the fight against Covid-19 by implementing additional measures to minimise the harmful use of alcohol, including:

-Imposing a ban on the sale of 750ml and 1l containers of beer and cider
-Requiring all alcohol outlets to maintain an ID/passport-based register of all purchases
and limiting the amount of alcohol that each person can buy at one time
-Implementing a tracking system that tracks alcohol products from the point of
production to the point of sale to end the distribution of alcohol to unlicensed outlets
(this has been done successfully in Russia where consumption has dropped by 43%)
-Disallowing the sale of off-consumption alcohol by on-consumption outlets, thereby
reducing availability by limiting the number of outlets; in addition, providing on consumption outlets with financial relief and assisting outlet owners to explore
alternative income-generating options
-Raising the drinking age from 18 to 21
-Limiting alcohol marketing to point-of-sale adverts giving only product details, with no
‘lifestyle’ ads glamourising alcohol
-Banning all sports and culture sponsorships and branding by alcohol companies
-Fast-tracking the processing of outstanding Bills that will help to reduce alcohol-related

SAAPA SA calls on government and the NCCC to act swiftly to allow our youth and their families
the right to live in an alcohol-safe society and to have a future free of the threat of alcohol-related harm. 

Maurice Smithers is the Director for the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance South African Chapter.