President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the reimposition of the alcohol ban on July 13 he also called out unspecified South Africans for being “careless and reckless” in the face of the accelerating Covid-19 pandemic. But we could as easily apply the same criticism to the government’s inconsistent and heavy-handed management of the crisis.

At face value the case for banning alcohol sales is strong: SA is experiencing the long-predicted surge in Covid-19 infections. The unbanning of alcohol sales after June 1 coincided with a surge in trauma unit admissions. Banning alcohol sales, the government asserts, would reduce alcohol-related trauma admissions by 3,400 in the first week alone. This would free up resources needed by Covid-19 victims.

But there are several problems with this. The ban was sprung on the country without warning and after no discussion with the industry or civil society. This was more or less how the original alcohol ban was imposed in March, and was also the mechanism for banning other activities under lockdown (selling hot food, outdoor exercise, the cigarette trade, walking on beaches). The government believes it knows best, and the role of citizens is to do as they are told. The government does not trust its own population, but it does not appear to understand that this invites a similar lack of trust in return.

One indication of the government’s mistrust is its tight control of information. This makes it difficult to challenge the figures it presents. Though there is a science-based ministerial advisory council (MAC), neither its advice nor its models are released to the public. The day after Ramaphosa announced the reimposition of the alcohol ban, health minister Zweli Mkhize stated that the more than 70 advisories presented by the MAC to the government (including advice on alcohol restrictions) would not be made public “because they do not represent the government’s final position”.

At a stroke the public was prevented from engaging with the data. There is no doubt the scientists involved have acted in good faith — they have been more available to the media than government decision-makers have been. But in a fast-developing situation data cannot be simply treated as established fact. Scientific method demands that it be questioned, and democracy requires that that questioning should not be confined to governing party politicians or academic insiders.

The dramatic decline in hospital trauma admissions when the ban on alcohol was first imposed, in March, has been much referenced. During lockdown levels 5 and 4 there was a 60%-70% reduction. But that decline also coincided with an almost complete ban on movement and commerce — enforced by the security services — which in effect confined South Africans to their homes. There were fewer vehicle accidents at the time because almost no-one was driving. Has this variable been appropriately factored into the current projections? We don’t know, and have no way of finding out.

It is clear that even within the MAC scientific opinion is not unanimous. Two scientists and committee members — Angelique Coetzee, president of the SA Medical Association, and Francois Venter of Wits University — criticised the alcohol ban almost immediately. Coetzee’s view is that “the government has repeatedly shot itself in the foot with irrational advice” and, as a result, has forfeited the trust of society. She felt an opportunity to manage the pandemic through a new social contract had been missed.

The inconsistencies are not confined to past management of the pandemic — they are still with us, and were apparent in Ramaphosa’s latest speech, which marked the moment when the government caved in to the minibus taxi industry and allowed full occupancy of vehicles for (undefined) “short-distance trips”. SA’s 200,000 minibus taxis transport 65% of the country’s urban commuters and is a channel through which the pandemic can and has spread. There are other permitted activities that are likely to spread the virus, including religious gatherings (of up to 50 people), funerals and casinos. Critics ask, with good reason, why these activities are allowed while the alcohol trade is singled out for a ban.

Beyond the control of information and inconsistent policies lies the issue of economic impact. The total alcohol value chain employs 1-million people and accounts for 3% of the country’s GDP. The liquor industry says the first ban led to the loss of 118,000 jobs, from workers on wine farms (which were unable to export under the lockdown) to employees of corner liquor traders, which can no longer afford their rentals. State revenue loss (excise and sales taxes) is estimated at R3.4bn for April and May, and that’s before you consider the R300bn black hole in the national budget.

Finally, there is the boost the ban will give to the illegal economy. Alcohol provides a classic example of what happens when a desired commodity is banned — as historians of the rise of 1920 racketeers (including the mafia) in the US can attest. In a Covid-19 context illegal outlets will be less scrupulous about masks, disinfectants and social distancing than regulated ones would have been.

The new alcohol ban is evidence that the government does not like engaging with its citizens and is most comfortable ruling by “careless and reckless” decree. That’s hardly a recipe for trust.

• Christianson, a freelance writer, has been a political scientist, NGO researcher and development banker. He entered business journalism in 1997 and was Diageo African Business Writer of the Year in 2006.

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