Alcohol is bringing South Africa to its knees, and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi says he agrees with experts who accuse the government of spending decades dragging its feet in passing laws in response to the crisis.
Problems caused by heavy drinking spike over the festive period, the prime time for substance-fuelled violence, road crashes and child neglect.
Motsoaledi said yesterday that he was shocked when he drove through Limpopo late on Christmas Day to see groups of drunken young people in almost every village.
"I was deep in depression about where our country is heading to. I even stopped and said: 'My God.' That was during the night! They were just there to drink alcohol - young girls and young boys," said Motsoaledi.
South Africans are among the world's biggest boozers, with one in four adults classified as heavy drinkers, and the problem is getting worse.
On average, more than 100 people die every day due to alcohol abuse - as a result of drink-driving, violence or heart disease - but steps to tackle the problem are mired in bureaucracy, according to scientists and activists.
Among the shock details of South Africa's love affair with booze are:
- The volume of alcohol sold increased 12.4% between 2006-2007 and 2013-2014;
- Some 65,000 retail alcohol licences were granted in 2011, compared with 35,000 in 2003; and
- The World Health Organisation's alcohol consumption forecast for 2015 was 21% higher than a decade ago.
Research in 2014 put the economic cost of alcohol abuse at between 10% and 12% of GDP - or more than R300-billion.
In spite of this, six out of nine provinces still apply the apartheid-era Liquor Act of 1989. Its successor, passed in 2003 after a Constitutional Court tussle, applies only in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape because they have promulgated their own legislation in line with the act.
But even the 2003 act is no longer considered fit for purpose, and in May, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies published a draft national liquor policy, which is intended to lead to a new Liquor Act, a process that could take years.
Proposals in the draft included raising the minimum legal drinking age from 18 to 21; holding manufacturers, suppliers and retailers liable for harm caused by the intoxicated; and banning liquor outlets within 500m of schools.
A proposed law to curb alcohol-related advertising and sponsorships, the Control of Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Bill, was discussed by the cabinet in 2013.
Motsoaledi denied this was a bid to ban alcohol, as many seem to suggest. "Remember, we are among the top 10 in the world of drunken nations. The aim of the bill is to reduce the attraction of alcohol to young people - to the new generation. And we believe it is in line with the National Development Plan," he said.
He emphasised that he was "extremely passionate" about the bill.
But he noted that there was opposition from the alcohol industry and even "cabinet colleagues".
"I agree with civil society on this one 100% that we delayed ... if it was not for all this procrastination we would have moved on ... Civil society must also wake up but they must not just complain to the papers. They must act ... They must stand up on the side of government this time and say enough is enough - we want this law to pass for our benefit. I will be happy, I will join them if they do so," he said.
He said that as health minister, he sees the impact of alcohol abuse and the suffering it brings.
"We are not moving quickly enough. We have been working on this for 10 years," said Sue Goldstein, programme director for health and development at the Soul City Institute and a senior public health lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand.
"The sense of urgency seems to have fallen off and I am not quite sure why. With legislation, problems eventually translate into change, but unfortunately it is going to take a lot of lives in the meantime."
At least 1,542 motorists were arrested countrywide for drunk driving between December 1 and 23. Road Traffic Management Corporation spokesman Simon Zwane said yesterday that 786,000 vehicles had been stopped at roadblocks and 147,000 drivers tested for alcohol consumption.
Disregard for road safety was illustrated by a driver who hurled an empty beer can out of his minibus taxi while weaving recklessly among pedestrians and red traffic lights in Johannesburg on Christmas Eve.
Upon being pulled over, he offered traffic police a R630 bribe. He spent Christmas behind bars.
Drunk drivers, pedestrians and people injured while under the influence of alcohol put additional strain on emergency treatment centres over the festive season.
"Alcohol is a major contributor to serious and sometimes fatal injuries - from car crashes to domestic violence," said Western Cape health spokesman Mark van der Heever.
Statistician-general Pali Lehohla said this week that alcohol abuse was one of the main factors contributing to high suicide rates in the Northern Cape and Western Cape.
Charles Parry, director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at the Medical Research Council, said binge drinking was a large part of the problem.
"While many people do not drink, a lot of people that do drink, drink heavily, especially at this time of year," he said.
Unpublished MRC research reveals public support for more stringent laws to deal with alcohol abuse.
Statistics on alcohol abuse by South Africans are alarming:
We have the highest number of drink-driving accidents in the world, according to the WHO. Around 58% of road deaths are linked to alcohol;
We drink 53% more than the rest of Africa, according to Southern African Development Community research;
The WHO ranks South Africa fourth highest internationally when it comes to the riskiest drinking patterns; and
Research last year found that alcohol is the third largest contributor to premature death and disability, after unsafe sex and violence, both of which are influenced by drinking.
Savera Kalideen, advocacy manager at Phuza Wize, said the tangible and intangible annual costs of alcohol harm totalled R37.5-billion.
"We only make R16-billion to R17-billion per annum in terms of taxes and excise duty ... we are not gaining much out of the alcohol industry," she said.
In June Zodwa Ntuli, then the Department of Trade and Industry's deputy director-general for consumer and corporate regulation, told parliament alcohol abuse was "draining the state".
DTI spokesman Sidwell Medupe said the draft liquor policy was awaiting cabinet approval and was likely to be considered before the end of the financial year.
The 90 responses received might be included in the final policy. He denied the government was dragging its feet.
"The criticism may be attributable to the lack of appreciation of the processes of consultation," he said.
As for the bill on alcohol advertising, little progress has been made. Parry said soon after the bill received the cabinet's stamp of approval, an independent regulatory impact assessment was done to evaluate its effect on sectors such as sport and tourism.
"One of the big stumbling blocks is the Sports Ministry. They get a lot of money from sports sponsorships in order to function," said Parry.
For close to a year, the bill has been with the ministerial committee on combating alcohol and substance abuse, which includes the ministers of health, social development and trade and industry.
Lumka Oliphant, spokesman for the Department of Social Development, said the implications of the bill were complex.
"Government does not want to go ahead with legislation until it has been very carefully considered and the impacts scrutinised.
"We know, for example, that sporting codes, the arts, the media, advertising agencies and so on will all be impacted should this legislation go ahead."
The committee has yet to make a recommendation to the cabinet, but Oliphant said it believed the legislation would help alleviate the scourge.
- Additional reporting by Andre Jurgens
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article we reported that of the nine provinces, only the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Northern Cape had promulgated legislation in line with the 2003 Liquor Act. Although this was based on information in the Government Gazette, it is incorrect. The Eastern Cape was, in fact, the first province to promulgate legislation in line with the act. Mpumalanga has also done so.