I was standing in a queue at a retailer where I had gone to grab some essentials. Behind me stood a white man who had more than five packets of brown sugar with his other groceries.
I kept glancing back and looking at the sugar, and wondered if people really needed that amount during lockdown.
Curiosity got the better of me and I asked why he had so many packets of sugar.
He unashamedly said: “I’m going to make alcohol.”
I burst out laughing. He told me how he and his brother had made some and, on the day before our chat, they had finished their lot of “African beer”.
“Umqombothi?” I asked. His response was affirmative, declaring that it was the first time he had drunk it “and it was good”.
I joked with him on how, at the advent of the craft beer craze about six years ago, I once googled how to make Hunter’s Dry.
With our country in lockdown, and the ban on alcohol and cigarette sales, Google Trends shows that one of the most searched topics in the country has been “home-made alcohol”.
The ban on the sale of alcohol has got the country in a junkie craze, and has highlighted our conspicuous and self-destructive habit of being one of the worst abusers of the water from Pharaoh’s barrels.
In fact, the World Health Organisation ranked South Africa number five among nations that excessively consumed alcohol.
A thought worth considering, though, with the ban on alcohol, albeit for a valid reason, is the possibility of a rise in home-brewed alcohol, with potential to be more potent than the normal legal stuff.
Consider the Dorothy Masuka, and later Hugh Masekela, song Khawuleza (Hurry up). This was a call by “watchers” to warn skokiaan/imbhambha (illegal potent African beer) sellers to hide or spill their barrels during police raids.
Growing up, there were legends told about this brew. Some said the brewers used all sorts of ingredients to make it stronger.
Although unverified, one of the tales was that some brewers used a little car battery water/acid.
So potent were the variations of these brews that people asked, “Uhamba nobani? (Who is accompanying you?)”, because too much of the brew would render you unable to walk and you would need someone to take you home – just like the Nomahelele guy whose videos got black viewers in stitches last year.
Legends and tales aside, it is apparent that South Africans have resorted to brewing their own alcohol, while others have resorted to the black market, which has apparently shot up by 400%.
Just how potent and dangerous these concoctions are, we do not know.
Only when a test victim succumbs to a home-made brew or emergency wards start flooding with victims, not of corona but of something unknown, only then we will know.
I am not advocating the unbanning of alcohol, especially in this crisis.
South Africa has long needed a strong stance on alcohol sales and consumption.
But the government has been lacking because it needs the sin taxes to boost the welfare state it has created.
With the lockdown ban on alcohol and tobacco sales, the consumers of these products are not relenting – and neither are contraband and fake goods manufacturers.
Speaking to relatives in the most rural parts of the Eastern Cape, you hear of stories about an alcoholic variation of “gimmer” (ginger beer), which is now a popular alcohol product.
Social media is abuzz with shops running out of yeast and umthombo (malt), to such an extent that they have started to limit the amount consumers can buy.
What happens when we take away the product from addicts? They find an alternative, no matter how bad it is. They need that fix.
Those who are into smoking are finding ways to buy contraband cigarettes, which probably does not adhere to or meet government standards.
This has given rise to a thriving black market, a market even our revenue services and customs have not been able to contain.
In rural areas it’s said people have resorted to smoking dried cow dung.
A warder at a prison just 800 metres from my house told me that prisoners had resorted to smoking dry tea leaves.
Alcohol drinkers are also finding ways to get what they need.
We cannot apply draconian apartheid tactics to deal with the sale of alcohol and consumption – especially among black people. The government needs to take stock of the fact that they have relied on sin, and lately sugar, taxes to boost the overburdened fiscus.
Post-lockdown, we need a serious government strategy but, in the meantime, we need a common ground on how to manage what’s brewing as it could prove more hazardous.
We need to khawuleza.
Malinga is a communications practitioner, a part-time blogger, an avid reader, a social commentator and a township loyalist.
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