CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In South Africa, the government tried to control the COVID-19 outbreak by banning booze to keep people from gathering. Plus, sober South Africans were less likely to violently protest a complete lockdown.
You couldn’t sit at a bar; you couldn’t order a glass of wine; you couldn’t even buy beer at the store.
There was an immediate public health benefit that had nothing to do with COVID-19. Suddenly, emergency rooms were empty, devoid of alcohol-related accidents.
But the ban also exposed the country’s complicated and painful history with alcohol.
In March, as South Africa lifted the ban, people flooded into bars. At noon, on a weekday, there are already a dozen people at the Premium Sports bar in Cape Town. Wellington Tobella was drinking a pitcher of beer with his friends.
“That is why now we are all together. We are all starting to enjoy this new life,” says Tobella, a public employee in his 40s.
The bans were not popular with many South Africans. Tobella says it felt like collective punishment, even against people like him, who just wanted a drink after a long overnight shift.
“We are not abusing the booze,” says Tobella. “We use the booze as a material that can entertain us.”
But this is a country with a huge alcohol industry that employs almost 300,000 people. The Western Cape produces some of the finest wine in the world, and South Africans are some of the most ardent alcohol consumers on the continent.
William Goliath, who owns this bar and the liquor store next door, says the ban nearly killed his business.
There were moments when he thought, “We’re gonna have to put it up for sale or something, because things were not good.”
His bar is in Mitchells Plain, a township created by the apartheid government for colored people. At the time, people of color were kept out of most businesses. Black people weren’t allowed to drink or sell alcohol, yet in an act of rebellion many turned their homes into shebeens, an Irish term used for apartheid-era speakeasies.
That’s how this bar started. As a kid, Goliath remembers patrons drinking in his living room at all hours.
“We were working from an early age. Pick up glasses, mop the floors, things like that.”
With the money they made at the bar, his parents could afford to send Goliath and his siblings to school. Eventually, Goliath took over the business. He legalized it and built this mega sports bar that employs dozens of people in a tough neighborhood.
He saw the news about how the alcohol ban cleared emergency rooms. But he still wasn’t convinced.
“I won’t say that South Africans have a drinking problem. South Africans could possibly have a discipline problem,” he says.
The facts are different. Doctors know alcohol and violence are intimately related.
“Late on a Saturday evening you could smell a combination of the blood and alcohol, and that’s the reality of working in a busy emergency unit in South Africa,” says Dr. Melvin Moodley, who works for the Cape Town health department.
Every weekend, he says, emergency rooms fill up with drunk people who have gotten into fights and ended up stabbed or shot. But things changed when South Africa banned alcohol.
“We saw a dramatic drop in hospitalizations but more specifically, we saw a dramatic drop in trauma-related hospitalizations.”
That trickled down to every aspect of the health system. There were fewer people at the ER, fewer ICU admissions.
“And the system just decompresses and more beds open up for COVID-19 patients,” says Moodley.
Dr. Muzzammil Ismail, who also works at the health department, says the ban saved lives. On New Year’s Eve, a day notorious for its carnage, emergency rooms were completely empty.
It was a reality check for South Africans.
“It sort of removed the band-aid and it showed the wound for what it is, and everybody saw it and we are now in a state of acknowledging that this is a problem,” says Muzzammil.
Parliament has begun talking about whether changes are needed in South Africa’s liberal booze policy. There is talk of raising the drinking age to 21, of banning advertising. And lawmakers have drafted a bill making it illegal to have even a single drink before driving.
Back at Mitchells Plain, Magda Rowe gives me a tour of the liquor store that takes up the front of her house. She has beer fridges as well as a cabinet with expensive gin and vodka.
“You have everything. Everything yes,” says Rowe.
She and her husband started selling booze illegally, out of the back of their car. But over the years, it grew into a business. The income let her raise her kids with dignity.
“You buy bread from that money,” she says. “And if you don’t sell a beer today, there’s no bread on the table and it keeps us going.”
She goes back to her living room, where she’s joined by Allan Samuels, the head of the liquor association, and Lynn Phillips, a community activist.
This is a troubled neighborhood. Kids are killed by gunfire. Gangs are ubiquitous. Almost half of the population is unemployed.
“The people will always blame the alcohol. And I don’t think it’s alcohol,” says Rowe.
Phillips, the community activist, gently disagrees. She believes that booze is tearing this community apart. But the relationship with alcohol here is complicated, she points out.
“Our people were paid not a salary, but they were paid alcohol as a remuneration for the work that they’ve done,” Phillips says.
Back in the apartheid days, it was known as the Tot System. Black and colored workers at wine farms were given alcohol instead of a pay check. It created a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol that Phillips says persists today.
Alcohol, she says, is damaging. Yet at the same time, liquor businesses give people like Rowe a chance at a better life.
I ask Rowe if this dilemma makes her want to change careers. She demurs and lets Samuels, the chair of the liquor association, answer.
“That basically is the only thing that some of our people know is to sell liquor. Selling of the liquor it is in you. It’s in your veins,” says Rowe.
That, he says, won’t change. Ban or no ban.