1 Million Jobs at Immediate Risk Due To Ban on Alcohol Sales

By Lucky Ntimane - National Convenor for the National Liquor Traders Council

The hopes and dreams of all those whose livelihood is connected to the liquor industry have been put on hold with “immediate effect” and without notice nor prior warning. If you are not going to work today, it is probably because you are among those whose livelihoods were affected when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a ban on the dispensing and sale of alcohol products.

If you are in Johannesburg, this means that you will not be getting off a taxi at the Bree Street taxi rank in Newtown at 07:15AM to rush your way past a crowded pathway to catch a connecting taxi that will take you to your place of work.

This means you will not be in the taxi, filled to 100% capacity, with a conductor at the door, that would have taken you from Newtown, past Braamfontein, onto Oxford Road, past Killarney, into Rosebank.

What we know for sure is that over 100 000 of these jobs were shed in the alcohol industry and many SMMEs have stated they will not be able to recover from the pandemic.

This morning, you will not be burdened with collecting and counting taxi fare and being on the firing line of commuters demanding their change when the packed taxi, filled with commuters - some wearing masks properly, some probably not – drives into Rosebank. You will not be jumping off the Rosebank taxi rank to walk a short distance into The Zone shopping mall, where your manager will be waiting for you to open the liquor outlet that has allowed you to earn a salary and put bread on your table while affording your younger siblings the opportunity that your parents could not give you – acquiring education.

This is because the liquor retail outlet you would’ve been going to has been closed indefinitely due to the recently published lockdown regulations.

This means you are now out of work for an unspecified period of time and will join the long queues of unemployment.

For a tavern owner in Ivory Park, Tembisa, having to wake up and walk past her closed tavern at an hour she would normally be entertaining her first patron, the new reality brought about by the president’s announcement lives a bitter taste in her mouth and condemns her entire family of which she is breadwinner to a future she cannot bear to look forward to.

How does she tell her 12 year old son that today there won’t be any pocket money to give him as he prepares to leave the house for school? How does she continue to have dreams for a better future for all her children when all her hopes that are tied to the tavern have all but dashed by an uncaring president with no regard for the livelihood of the very citizen he is supposed to lead? Who does she turn to for help if her government has forsaken her with no support mechanism in place? Why does she continue to suffer the brunt of decisions taken on her behalf without even a decent notice that would have warned her not to borrow money to buy the stock that she is currently sitting with and cannot sell?

It is for this reason that the government’s decision to suspend economic activity through the ban on the sale and dispensing of alcohol has become a very confusing strategy at a time that the economy has been bleeding jobs due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his address, the President announced the reinstating of the curfew and added that there was evidence that alcohol sales have resulted in substantial pressure being put on the healthcare system, including trauma and ICU units, due to motor vehicle accidents, violence and related trauma.

While most economic and religious activities that require people to gather in large numbers will remain open during this period, the alcohol value chain – from barley and hops farmers right down to the packaging suppliers and the friendly cashier who rings your purchase at your local retail outlet– some of them will again find themselves sitting at home with no income after only working for a month.

The wages earned over the past month might not even be enough to fill the hole left by the devastating two months hard lockdown that saw most forms of economic activities, with the exception of those that were deemed essential services, coming to a grinding halt.

Those with permits, essential services workers, will be allowed to be on the road between 9pm and 4am, while the rest will be required to stay at home or risk being on the wrong side of the law.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa unexpectedly and shockingly announced the alcohol sales ban in his address to the nation last Sunday, he immediately put over 1 million jobs in the created upstream and downstream by the entire alcohol industry at risk.

While we understand that the health system is under pressure as the surge of COVID-19 infections arrives, we do not believe that the legal sale of alcohol and beer is the sole contributor to the rising rate of Covid-19 infections and spike in trauma cases.

Had the President consulted the industry ahead of this announcement last Sunday, we would have told him that a number of factors were at play that led to the system being under pressure. We would have explained to him why a ban on sales was not a sound strategy.

I will come back to this point later.

But firstly, when he eased lockdown restrictions to alert level 4 on 1 May, some 1.5 million people returned to work and in June, when he announced the gradual re-opening of the economy with a shift to level 3, eight million more people were able to go back to work.

This represents just over 50% of the country’s labour force – the population of people in employment - which means millions of people could now be on the road any time of the day.

Secondly, the abolishment of curfew under level 3 meant that the movement of people was less regulated and social gatherings were made possible.

This opened the floodgates and a lot of people were on the streets at night without needing permits - holding braais and “after tears” after attending funerals - leading to reckless behaviour where the wearing of masks and social distancing may not have been observed.

The easing of lockdown restrictions also meant that there was an increased number of cars on the roads and this increased incidents of car crashes.

Many will remember that three months ago, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula announced that level 5 lockdown played a major part in the drop in Easter road accidents, with fatal crashes dropping by up to 83%.

This means that one cannot solely attribute the rise in trauma cases to the reintroduction of alcohol sales, without considering all these other factors. 

Before the ink dried on the President’s speech, some science experts, who serve on the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), publicly said that by banning alcohol sales on the one hand, and allowing taxis to load at full capacity for local trips, government was going about it the wrong way.

Dr Angelique Coetzee, the president of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), reportedly said it was important for government to look at implementing measures that were less harsh – including limiting alcohol outlet times and tackling alcohol abuse head on.

Another expert rightfully said government should instead focus on getting a buy-in from citizens instead of being inconsistent by implementing irrational advice that could lead to public disobedience.

We have already heard from Police Minister Bheki Cele that over 270 000 people were arrested for violating lockdown regulations since the declaration of the national state of disaster at the end of March. So a public buy in is important.

On that note, the industry is very supportive of the decision to reinstate night curfew as this limits the unnecessary movement of people and social gatherings. This, we believe, will mean law enforcement agencies will deal with less people who should be on the road and arrest those that violate regulations. 

What we believe should have happened ahead of the President’s address to the nation is meaningful consultation with the industry that sustains tens of hundreds of jobs in the alcohol supply value chain.

The industry has made several proposals to government ahead of the reopening of the economy on 1 June, including spreading a message for the responsible use of alcohol in South Africa through effective campaigns and providing adequate education and training in a bid to change behaviour. 

The industry has been proactively rolling out responsible drinking campaigns throughout lockdown and we have ensured that all liquor outlets that we dispense to implemented stringent health precautions and that they sell alcohol responsibly.

The route that government has taken – to ban alcohol sales - is rather harsh and puts an industry that was already under pressure due the pandemic on its knees. The sales ban also gives space to the illicit liquor market to flourish, which will lead to the irresponsible consumption of alcohol.

Now, the National Income Dynamics Study, a government-backed national household study at the University of Cape Town, has released its assessment on the impact of the novel corona virus on jobs.

The study, published on 15 July, found that 2.9 million people who were in employment in February this year have lost their jobs since lockdown begun.

What we know for sure is that over 100 000 of these jobs were shed in the alcohol industry and many SMMEs have stated they will not be able to recover from the pandemic.

We call on government to reconsider the alcohol sales ban and not to put a million livelihoods on the line.