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 to 23, during a stampede at a popular drinking spot called Osi’s.
Enforcing licence conditions
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.
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
And it is a fallacy to assume that if there are more licensed 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.
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The Western Cape Liquor Authority (WCLA) is very active in seeking to maintain
appropriate standards in the licensed 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.
Staggering consequences of alcohol abuse
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
Read: Alcohol abuse and dependence - the difference
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.
More rigorous enforcement needed
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
Read: Could you also be a new SA boozer?
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.
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
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.
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.
Read: The booze blues
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.
Spokesperson for Premier Helen Zille
071 564 5427
021 483 4584
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Image: Khyelitsha tavern from Shutterstock