Booze ban 'goes well beyond what is reasonable and necessary', says SAB as it takes government to court

Brewer of most of SA's beer says its decision to approach the courts was a difficult one

06 January 2021 - 19:03
By hilary joffe AND Hilary Joffe
The blanket ban on alcohol sales is unreasonable and unnecessary, and will cause hardship and job losses, says SA Breweries.
Image: iStock / Izusek The blanket ban on alcohol sales is unreasonable and unnecessary, and will cause hardship and job losses, says SA Breweries.

South African Breweries has taken government to court over the latest ban on alcohol sales, challenging the constitutionality of the ban, after it failed in its efforts to get the government to consider alternatives that could have helped to save the industry while also curbing Covid transmission.

SAB, which produces the bulk of SA’s beer, said its decision to approach the courts had been a difficult one.

“We are concerned about the resurgence of the Covid virus and remain steadfast in our intention to continue to support the government in flattening the curve, but the third ban on the sale of alcohol goes well beyond what is reasonable and necessary to contain the spread of the virus,” said SAB vice-president for corporate affairs Zoleka Lisa.

The 125-year-old brewer, which is now owned by Brussels-based AB InBev, made representations to the government on December 28 — the same day that the latest restrictions were imposed — to consider alternatives that would have restricted alcohol to sales for home consumption only and curbed trading hours. These restrictions, combined with an earlier curfew and restrictions on gatherings as well as heightened law enforcement, would have been effective in curbing the virus while also preserving livelihoods and keeping the economy open, SAB said on Wednesday.

The previous two alcohol bans shut down the entire alcohol supply chain for more than 100 days in 2020, with significant unintended consequences. Close to 165,000 people in the alcohol industry supply chain had lost their jobs during the previous two alcohol bans, with a further 100,000 moving into poverty. Additionally, 30% of craft brewers had closed, Lisa said.

Restricting the legal trade of alcohol had also fuelled the growth of the illicit market, which was now entrenched.

SAB has launched an urgent interdict in the Western Cape High Court to set aside the ban, giving the government two weeks to respond. Its case challenges the ban on the grounds that it denies the rights to trade and to human dignity enshrined in the constitution. The case comes after British American Tobacco successfully challenged the government in court over the tobacco ban and there is some overlap in the legal principles of the cases.

SAB’s court challenge comes amid growing concerns about what the government will do when the current ban expires in mid-January, with growing calls by the alcohol industry for government to consider a more flexible approach that would enable at least some sales to help keep the industry alive as the pandemic unfolds. The National Liquor Traders' Council on Tuesday said liquor traders were very concerned for their livelihoods and urged the government to do more to protect the 250,000 jobs in the sector by allowing off-premise sales to resume on January 16.

The Beer Association of SA warned on Wednesday that independent craft breweries were “on the brink of closure” after the government ordered the third alcohol ban, Bloomberg reported. SA’s previous two alcohol bans cost SA’s greater beer industry an estimated 7,400 jobs and R14.2bn in revenue, Basa said.