SAAPA SA and its Alliance Partners call for a decisive, comprehensive plan to address alcohol-related harm

In the past few days, President Cyril Ramaphosa has addressed the nation twice on the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy in which 21 East London teenagers died – in his weekly message on Monday and at the mass funeral of the Enyobeni victims on Wednesday. The Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in SA (SAAPA SA) welcomes his interventions but believes the President has failed to show clear and robust leadership by offering a way forward that will guarantee a reduction in alcohol-related harm in our country going forward.

SAAPA SA, other civil society organisations and public health researchers have for decades been calling for more effective alcohol control measures to protect the health, safety and well-being of our people. In response, it must be acknowledged, government did take positive, though erratic, steps in the period 2010 to 2017. 

In 2010, South Africa endorsed the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol which was adopted at the 63rd World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, Switzerland. 

In the same year, Cabinet established the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) to combat substance abuse, chaired by the Minister of Social Development. Also in that year, Cabinet adopted a resolution calling on all spheres of government not to enter into partnerships with the liquor industry because it may compromise government’s ability to effectively legislate effective alcohol control measures. 

In 2013, the Department of Health tabled the Control of Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Bill, a bold initiative to ban all alcohol advertising and sponsorships as a way of countering the ‘normalisation’ and ‘glamourisation’ of alcohol. The Bill was never released for public comment or sent to Parliament for consideration because of intense pressure from the liquor industry and its allies inside and outside government. 

In 2016, Cabinet approved the new National Liquor Policy drafted by the Department of Trade and Industry. The policy identified weaknesses in the Liquor Act of 2003 and proposed changes to give effect to the three ‘best buys’ of the WHO Global Strategy of 2010 – limiting or banning alcohol advertising, reducing availability of alcohol, and increasing the price of alcohol. At the same meeting, a Liquor Amendment Bill which would give effect to some of the recommendations of the new National Liquor Policy was approved by Cabinet for release for public comment. 

The Department of Trade and Industry initiated a public participation process in 2016/2017. However, before the Bill could be sent to Parliament for consideration, all work on it came to a halt. Since then, SAAPA SA and others have been calling regularly for the processing of the Bill to be restarted. To date, this has not happened and there are rumours that there are closed-door discussions on possibly watering the Bill down or scrapping it altogether. 

COVID-19 highlighted, as never before, the challenges the country faces in respect of the harmful use of alcohol. However, while there were many voices inside and outside government calling for effective measures to address those challenges, including proposals by the President himself in January 2021 – proposals which were in line with the WHO ‘best buys’ – nothing has happened to date. Since the lifting of all COVID-19 restrictions, the prevailing narrative is ‘economic growth’, with tougher legislative measures to counter alcohol harm no longer on the national agenda. 

The Enyobeni Tavern tragedy has reopened the debate. However, in his recent addresses, the President has characterised the problem primarily as one of underage drinking. SAAPA SA and others argue that underage drinking is a symptom of a much greater problem and that, unless this is recognised, appropriate solutions will not be found. In his address at the funeral on Wednesday, the President suggested there should be a national debate on whether the age of drinking should be raised from 18 to 21. As a consequence, everyone is now discussing whether increasing the age of drinking will address the challenge of underage drinking

SAAPA SA is fully in support of raising the age of drinking from 18 to 21 – there are very cogent, evidence-based health and social benefits to doing so. But raising the age of drinking will not on its own achieve anything. 

There is no reason to suppose that a 13 or 15 year-old child who is currently drinking alcohol despite a drinking age limit of 18 will suddenly stop drinking just because the age limit is raised to 21. 

What is needed is a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to addressing the issue. We already have a National Liquor Policy based on the WHO ‘best buys’ – what is needed is to put in place measures to make the policy recommendations into law.

SAAPA SA, its 66 civil society Alliance Partners and its colleagues in the public health and research sectors, call on the President to act decisively and effectively by taking steps to initiate an urgent response to the current crisis. These should include:

Establishing a new inter-ministerial structure – a National Coordinating Committee for Alcohol Control or Alcohol Harm Reduction – located in the Presidency to ensure a whole-of-government focus on the specific risks posed by this most ubiquitous of drugs

Calling on all spheres of government not to enter into partnerships with the liquor industry, rejecting calls by the liquor industry to be allowed to ‘self-regulate’, and asserting government’s right to determine what legislation is required to reduce alcohol-related harm

Calling on the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition to get the Liquor Amendment Bill ready to send to Parliament which can then embark on a nation-wide public participation process to debate it

Calling on Parliament to fast-track the processing of the Road Traffic Amendment Bill

Calling on the Minister of Basic Education to scrap the proposal in the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill to authorise schools to raise funds by allowing alcohol to be served and sold on school premises and at school functions off school premises.

Calling on all provinces to take urgent steps to inform the public of their right to have an effective influence over when, where and how alcohol is sold and consumed in their communities – this right is enshrined in the Constitution and in national and provincial liquor legislation, and government has a responsibility to do whatever is needed to facilitate the ability of the public to exercise that right

Calling for a proper investigation into the establishment of a Health Promotion Development Fund (HPDF), resourced through higher excise tax on alcohol, to finance efforts by government and civil society to promote an alcohol-safer country

Convening an urgent meeting between Cabinet and civil society to provide a platform for people across the country to participate in formulating measures to reduce alcohol-related harm – a letter was sent to the Presidency in this regard yesterday, 7 July. We have been advised that our request is being handled by the Minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele.

Announcing a no-holds-barred investigation into the reasons the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy happened – accountability cannot be limited to the deceased learners, their parents and the tavern owner. The entire system failed our children and must be held to account – if this is not done, effective solutions will not be found and the country will have many more Enyobeni-type tragedies in the future. 

Recommitting government to the implementation of the recommendations of the WHO Global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol (2010) and the Global Alcohol Action Plan (2022-2030) which was adopted in May this year at the WHO’s 75th World Health Assembly

For further information:
Maurice Smithers, Executive Director, SAAPA SA 082 3737705
Terri-Liza Fortein, Communications Manager, SAAPA SA 079 9765489