At the centre of a sugar storm

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Johannesburg - The controversy over tax on sugary drinks whirls around The Beverage Association of SA (BevSA) and, therefore, its executive director, Mapule Ncanywa.

The tax-associated issues range from health problems connected to obesity to dire predictions of job losses, a significant drop in South Africa’s tax revenues and charities that could lose out on billions in support.

At the centre of this storm sits Ncanywa – calm, strong and determined. I visited her at BevSA’s new offices in Menlyn, Pretoria.

“Anything non-alcoholic – and that includes ready-to-drink teas – falls under BevSA,” explains Ncanywa.

The role of the association is to promote fairness of common standards for all regulations involving non-alcoholic drinks.

She questions the rationale of not implementing a comprehensive set of measures that would look at a whole range of sugar sources.

“We won’t achieve obesity reduction as per the national strategy if we don’t adopt an approach that encapsulates the lifestyles of all South Africans,” she stresses.

Ncanywa’s ethos is to help the department of health implement a comprehensive strategy and, to that end, she advocates a countrywide dietary study.

This will result in a holistic approach to health and obesity, the latter being the cause of conditions ranging from diabetes to heart disease.

Ncanywa says that BevSA is not against a tax per se and points out there is currently no regulation for sugar content in drinks.

BevSA details on its website that the non-alcoholic beverage industry in South Africa has a direct economic impact of more than R62 billion, provides nearly 240 000 jobs and helps to support hundreds of thousands more who depend, in part, on beverage sales for their livelihoods.

Non-alcoholic beverage companies and their employees, and the firms and employees indirectly employed by the industry, provide tax revenues of R13.6bn.

In addition, both producers and distributers, and those they directly employ, contribute nearly R1.6bn to charitable causes in communities across the nation.

Ncanywa, whose experience in business ranges from 14 years at Microsoft in senior positions, to six years as general manager of corporate services at the Consumer Goods Council of SA, readily accepts that changes need to be made to non-alcoholic drinks to adapt to changing consumer trends.

Shortly after her arrival at BevSA, she went to the department of health to establish its aims.

When she relayed these to her association, the members said they might have to completely reformulate their products, and questioned whether it was feasible.

“And I said that it was,” exclaims Ncanywa, adding that research in the UK had shown that sugar reduction reformulation and smaller portion sizes (drinks packaging) were the two most effective obesity interventions in that country.

“Moderation is key – we need to educate people about the consequences of overconsumption and, with this in mind, we have launched an awareness campaign on radio. Later, we’ll move on to visuals.”

This energetic mother of four children, who range in age from nine to 24, was born in Pretoria, grew up in Mamelodi and comes from a Limpopo-based family.

She obtained her BA (in education and criminology) from the University of the North.

“I’ve decided that I like the regulatory space so much that I’ve registered to do law at Unisa this year,” she says.

Ncanywa had an interesting childhood for, when she was in her teens, “a coloured family asked if I could live with them as they had no children. So I have Bapedi parents, I married a Xhosa man and I feel coloured.”

She chuckles, her amusement palpable. Her effusive personality is illustrated by her approach to work and her executive director position.

She prioritises the management of people and their development. Illustrating her approach is her decision, “not to shake hands, as I think it’s impersonal; I hug people – even in board meetings – and I warn new members that I will hug them”.

Ncanywa sleeps for only six hours a night and relaxes “by making time for introspection. I’m spiritual, and I give thanks daily for what I have.”

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