Of blacks and booze

2014-12-09 06:00

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The middle class condemns poor black people for drinking but ignores its own excessive consumption

I realised in the darkling hours of a few Saturdays ago that I had no wine to drink with my supper.

The stove ticked itself cool as I dashed to the neighbourhood bottle store, almost two hours after other outlets in Cape Town had closed for the weekend.

But I had no worries. Easy access to alcohol is a perk that residents of this suburb enjoy.

There are at least three bottle stores, four licensed grocers and at least 40 other places that serve alcohol. That’s nearly 50 drinking holes for a suburb of 9?000.

This excludes outlets in neighbouring suburbs and the places where residents can order booze online for home delivery.

Yet no one in the councils and legislatures speaks of our easy access to alcohol as a problem in the way they do when speaking about township residents.

Ndumiso Madlala checks a glass of his Soweto Gold beer. The writer says problem drinkers are found everywhere, not only in townships. Picture: Gallo images

So blinding is the fixation on the drinking habits of poor blacks that the police portfolio committee submitted a report to the National Assembly last month claiming there were 25?000 illegal shebeens in Nyanga and Philippi – a spatial and economic impossibility.

Alarmed MPs joined the chorus with Western Cape Premier Helen Zille demanding that the police shut them down. The thing is, the real estimate is barely 1% of that figure and they’re already being shut down.

So, through hyperbole, the native again becomes a problem and the police the solution. The upcoming December holidays will amplify this dynamic.

By contrast, the proliferation of outlets selling alcohol is considered an economic boon for the city and the businesses in my suburb.

En route to the store, I saw streets filled with cars and people. Wine-sipping patrons sat in one bar. Others nursed mixed bevvies on the balcony of another. A security guard in blue stood in the street with a shaggy dog, a white German Shepherd, looking on.

His presence sounded a mental alarm, a reminder of how terrifying I find the suburban night streets on weekends.

In suburbia, weekends are when the privileged of late-stage white capitalism self-medicate the prick of social consciousness with substances which, in enough quantities, impairs judgement and lowers inhibitions.

I know enough to expect that encountering one of them while they’re intoxicated will not be pleasant.

In such a state, the privileged are more prone to tearing up the already inequitable social agreement and demanding more from those who labour for them. More servitude, more grovelling, more gratitude.

I thought of Gloria Kente, a domestic worker and nanny in Table View who won a rare instance of justice last month. She received a R50?000 award of damages and a court-ordered apology from her employer’s partner, Andre van Deventer, who the Cape Town equality court found guilty of hate speech.

Kente had apparently angered Van Deventer in June last year by having the temerity to disturb his beer drinking with a request that he look after his own baby while she had a shower. An apparently drunk Van Deventer called her a k****r. It was not the first time either.

I nodded at the guard and crossed the street into the store, remembering he was not there to police patrons of the businesses. He was there to keep “undesirables” – beggars, sex workers and others in the darkened fringes of the night streets – from interfering with our enjoyment of the perks of being more affluent.

Months earlier, another guard in blue helped me file an incident report after my car was broken into during the night. His own home in Barcelona in Gugulethu had recently been ransacked while he was at work. He seemed more pained by the theft I had suffered, even though I was insured and he was not.

Was it part of his training to put aside his own loss to mourn the losses of others whose property he is paid a pittance to protect?

Whatever it was, it would not shield him if one of the privileged stepped out from a bar and demanded more of him. Recent drunken violence against working class blacks at the Cape Quarter mall and Tiger Tiger nightclub bear testimony to that.

It also demonstrates that problem drinkers – roughly 6% of the drinking population and, according to Zille, the cause of interpersonal violence – are found everywhere.

That ought to make policymakers abandon the problematic belief that restricting access to alcohol in townships will end violence.

If anything, it will exacerbate yet another instance of black consumption and white profit, given that 86% of the liquor licences in the Western Cape are held by whites.

That’s yet another perk of affluence. More affluence, with the help of a government drunk on paternalism.

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