The continued ban on alcohol and tobacco has given rise to thriving but potentially deadly black markets for both commodities.
The popularity of illicit products has allowed those manufacturing their own beers and cigarettes not only to take advantage of demand and inflate prices, but to take chances with ingredients that could leave consumers sick – or even dead.
Tembisa Hospital spokesperson Nothando Mdluli said that since the lockdown, there had been a surge in patients brought in for illnesses related to home-brewed alcohol and home-made cigarettes.
Mdluli warned that if people continued brewing their own alcohol without experience, they could suffer blindness or die.
“We’ve had over 50 patients brought in for alcohol and cigarette experiment cases. Some had collapsed, while others were already vomiting when they arrived. This is dangerous if people aren’t careful,” he said.
He added, however, that the lockdown was working because the normal numbers of alcohol-related admissions had decreased.
South Africans desperate to satisfy their craving for alcohol are whipping up a variety of concoctions, from traditional umqomboti, brewed from mealiemeal and sorghum mal, to ginger beer, pineapple beer, apple cider, ordinary craft beer and distilled liquor, more commonly known as witblits.
Sphamandla Nkosi (35) told City Press that these home-made products had long existed, but were gaining popularity due to the ban.
“Umqomboti is nothing new – our fathers preferred it before these new beers came up. People are just going back to their roots.
"The problem is that it’s a bit pricey now and people think they can make it themselves at home. Then they get sick, but at least it’s legal,” he said.
Government’s about-turn on the sale of tobacco products has seen desperate smokers turn to the internet to search for ways of making their own cigarettes. This includes using ingredients such as tea leaves.
Mandla Masango (28) from Tembisa said the tobacco ban had put a strain on his nicotine addiction.
“Honestly, this ban is killing us slowly. It’s not easy to go for days without a cigarette, which is why we opt for the home-made method. The teabag cigarette with snuff is an option; it tastes like Peter Stuyvesant.
“We experiment a lot. Sometimes we put weed in the snuff to get the extra taste that’s missing,” he said. Cigarettes made this way have been particularly popular among smokers in Soweto and Tembisa.
The continued ban on alcohol and cigarettes in South Africa has been a massive bone of contention between government and citizens, with a surge in black market products for which exorbitant prices are charged. Consumers are paying as much as R300 for a packet of cigarettes – six times higher than its normal price.
While many in the industry acknowledge the importance of supporting national efforts to fight the coronavirus, there is frustration about an arbitrary approach which is causing significant damage to many businesses and resulting in more than R1 billion a month being lost in excise revenue.
Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association chairperson Sinenhlanhla Mnguni warned that the government would see a continued increase in the trade of illegal cigarettes.
“The longer the lockdown goes on, the more criminal networks will be able to entrench their ability to sell and distribute cigarettes, including home-made ones,” said Mnguni.
SA Breweries director Helen Ndlovu echoed that the black market in alcohol would also continue thriving.
“South Africa has a fully functional illicit alcohol market which is ready to capitalise on any ban implemented. Apart from the imminent negative impact on the market, the ban on sales will have a severe impact on our business as well,” she said.
But as things stand, one aspect of the ban does appear to be uniting people from different walks of life. It has created a new enthusiasm for home-brewing, which has always been a firm fixture in rural communities.
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