How South Africans defied the booze ban

Illicit trading, home brewing boomed despite the risks

14 February 2021 - 00:00
Lucas Cowling enjoys a beer while others socialise at the Xai Xai bar in Melville, Johannesburg, the day alcohol sales resumed last week.
Lucas Cowling enjoys a beer while others socialise at the Xai Xai bar in Melville, Johannesburg, the day alcohol sales resumed last week.
Image: Alastair Russell

When South African drinkers couldn’t get their hands on their favourite tipple during the first hard lockdown last year, they either bought it illegally, got it from family and friends or even made their own.

An online survey of 1,500 South Africans across provinces and income groups by international consultancy Euromonitor found that more than half of the respondents ran out of alcohol during the first lockdown, between March and May last year. When they did,27% of them bought alcohol despite the ban, 9% travelled to “an -other area” to find it and 15% admitted to making their own.

They did so even though three-quarters of young drinkers and half of older drinkers supported the ban intended to reduce alcohol-related trauma and free up hospitals to treat patients with Covid-19.The research, conducted in June last year, also found that banning legal alcohol sales allowed the illicit industry — which includes smuggling legally made alcohol and the manufacture of counterfeit products — to proliferate.

The report also pointed to lax police enforcement, weak prosecutions and poor border controls, which allowed many to buy illegal alcohol through social media and the informal sector.

However, police minister Bheki Cele has denied that the alcohol sales ban was solely to blame for the illicit trade problem.

“It has always been a problem and continues to be a problem,” he said, adding that he would like to meet with the industry to further discuss and address their concerns.

Providing figures from the most recent lockdown, Cele told the Sunday Times that since December 29, 1,736 people had been charged with liquor-related offences — including the illegal transportation, production and trading of alcohol — and that police had seized more than 200,000l of alcoholic drinks.

Cele said, however, that more could be done to combat the illegal booze business.

“One thing we have said is that we are very weak on the legislation. We have agreed that we have to use this space to fix the law. I also think that prosecution is not tough. People take us to court for confiscating their alcohol and the court rules that we should return it, so we need to work around the legality of some of the things happening in the industry.”

The South African Revenue Service (Sars) says it is part of an inter-agency working group consisting of various government departments involved in fighting the illicit trade in alcohol and tobacco, among other products. It said in a statement: “Sars regularly announces its successes with regard to seizures of these illicit goods at ports of entry and elsewhere in the country... Other agencies such as the SAPS and the NPA take these matters further for investigation and prosecution.

However, Kurt Moore, CEO of the South African Liquor Brand owners Association, pointed out that Sars com -missioner Edward Kieswetter had admitted last year that the ban had helped improve the organisational efficiency of illegal alcohol syndicates.

One of those who made their own booze during the first lockdown was a 50-year-old man from Cape Town who spoke to the Sunday Times on condition of anonymity. He said curiosity and boredom had got the better of him.

“It started off almost as a challenge to find something new or a new hobby to occupy our time and we shared thoughts and ideas and that is how we learnt,” he said.

It became a very useful tool to barter because some goods were in short supply, like tobacco, so I could make home-made beer and barter it for tobacco, for example

“It became a very useful tool to barter because some goods were in short supply, like tobacco, so I could make home-made beer and barter it for tobacco, for example.”

Tobacco sales were also banned at the time.

“I am also definitely not afraid of the police. There was no specific ban on brewing your own at home. It was more to do with buying and transporting and selling,” he said.

But while the man said he had suffered no ill effects from his home brew, Tony Hillair and Alida Fouche from the Northern Cape town of Port Nolloth were not so lucky. They died in May last year from apparently consuming home-made beer.

The Euromonitor research also found that consumers of home-brewed concoctions can suffer lethal effects “preceded by periods of intense suffering”.

Police found Fouche’s body in the flat she shared with Hillair; he died later in hospital.

Pastor James Malgas, who runs community organisations in the town, said the couple’s deaths had shocked the community.

“After the incident everyone became depressed because the coronavirus was strange and then that happened as well. At least it helped bring awareness to homebrewing because a lot of people who were doing that stopped.”

Malgas said many home brewers in Port Nolloth added poisonous methylated spirits to their home brews. “During the first wave a lot of South Africans tried this home brew and they did not have the right ingredients.

Unlike our ancestors, who used to make umqombothi , these home-made mixes can be very dangerous and are poisonous.”

Lucky Ntimane, convener of the Liquor Traders Association of SA, said he had heard many tales of people dying after drinking home-brewed alcohol.

“I was in KwaZulu-Natal and these women came to ask for money from this particular shop owner because three of their family members had just died from drinking homebrewed alcohol. The women needed money because they wanted the bodies of their loved ones to be released from the mortuary.

When I tried to follow up on what was in their drink I was told that in that area about eight people had died,” Ntimane said.

“When I wanted samples of what was in there I was told that I was treading on dangerous territory because those people who were making that concoction did not care about human lives. There is a lot that people don’t know about illicit alcohol.”

Ntimane said illicit alcohol trading was a major legal concern because it “erodes the  goodwill of the market by enticing unsuspecting consumers to its fold through the promise of a cheap price”.

Spirits are the most counterfeited alcohol because the profit margins are highest, the research states.

Moore agreed with Cele on tightening laws around illegal alcohol sales because those now in force were not a strong deterrent .“Real brands now have some counterfeit brands that are circulating in the market at a price which is significantly lower than a normal brand owner would charge. That erodes the equity of the brand that we are invested in,” he said.

Moore also agreed that there is a problem of alcohol abuse in SA.

“The issue is how we deal with it. We feel that it needs to be a combination of rules and enforcement as well as interventions on behaviour change. Law enforcement can be more aggressive on drinking and driving and trading beyond allocated hours but we must also deal with individual behaviour of consumers and build awareness on drinking responsibly, ” he said.

“Unfortunately, we have been writing to the president and various ministers pleading to have a sit-down where we can put together proposals on how the problem can be solved, but have not been successful.”

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