New strategy needed on liquor industry

WE HAVE just celebrated 27 years of democracy in South Africa. But how do we assess the past 27 years in terms of what they have delivered to postapartheid South Africa?

For the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in SA SAAPA SA , there are two particular areas that need to be interrogated in what progress has there been with economic transformation and have we realised the goal of creating a participatory democracy? As SAAPA SA, we are not looking at these questions generally, but from the perspective of alcoholrelated harm and its impact on the lives of people. The Liquor Act of 1927 is notorious not only because it had clauses excluding blacks from participating in the liquor industry in any way. This particular law also consolidated all previous measures by the British colonies of the Cape and Natal and the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State to ban the sale of commercial alcohol to indigenous black South Africans, a ban that continued until 1961.

The political outcome of segregationist and apartheid laws was that power stayed in the hands of the white settlers until 1994. The economic outcome was that blacks were, by and large, in urban areas and in white farming areas, doomed to work for whites, mostly in menial jobs. Opportunities for alternative ways of making a living were very limited and those that did exist were only tolerated as long as they didn’t pose a significant threat to white economic power.

Because the Liquor Act of 1927 reinforced a ban on the sale of commercial alcohol ie that which was produced in white breweries and distilleries , an underground network of alcohol selling developed, similar to the speakeasies in the US during the Prohibition Era of 19201933. Unlicensed and illegal in every possible way, the thousands of shebeens Irish for illicit whisky or unlicensed alcohol outlet that appeared in townships across the country were a challenge to apartheid and white economic exclusion as well as a vibrant social home for township dwellers.

Government’s attitude to shebeens and to most other illegal activities in the townships seemed to be a pragmatic one: allow them to operate within reason unless they posed a threat to whites or to the status quo. Corruption played a role too. Shebeens were not unproblematic places resulting in challenging living conditions for the occupants of the house, adults and children alike. But it was a way of making a living. In 1994, the country voted for the first time in democratic elections, ushering in a new era.

Our new Constitution promised the redressing of past injustices, a new nonracial future, and an economy open and accessible to all. Amid all this, the unlicensed selling of alcohol a practice foisted on black communities by the exclusionary policies of apartheid is still an integral part of life in historically black areas, in informal settlements and in depressed, overcrowded innercity areas. Economic policies since 1994 have failed to “redress the imbalances of the past” and to assist those disadvantaged by apartheid to operate successfully in the normal, everyday economic environment from which they were excluded for so long.

The few highly successful black business people, and the few members of the growing black middle class, cannot be held up as symbols of postapartheid economic transformation when the majority struggle to survive from daytoday, with many turning, however reluctantly, to the unlicensed selling of alcohol.

Smithers is the director of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance