OPINION | Covid-19 is no excuse to resurrect mistakes of the prohibition era

Prohibition does not prohibit, says the writer. (Gallo Images, Papi Morake)
Prohibition does not prohibit, says the writer. (Gallo Images, Papi Morake)

South Africa, crippled by decades of corruption and an economy in crisis, cannot afford to let blind dogma trump the social and economic arguments for lifting prohibition immediately.


As part of the world's most draconian Covid-19 lockdown, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa instituted a complete ban on the distribution, transport and sale of alcohol on 27 March, alongside prohibitions on a bewildering list of products extending from tobacco and e-cigarettes to rotisserie chickens and, most recently, flip-flops. 

Ramaphosa’s National Coronavirus Command Council claims the alcohol ban has reduced the number of hospital admissions, traffic accidents and murders, but other countries have also seen fewer injuries, car crashes and crime without having to resort to prohibition.

Kenya, the UK, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia - to name a few - have all allowed alcohol sales during their Covid-19 lockdowns and seen dramatic drops in hospital admissions.

Confining people to their homes for weeks on end has been a bigger driver of these changes than depriving people of alcohol. 

Domestic violence is one of the few types of crime to have risen under lockdown, and dry South Africa is no exception. Calls to its domestic violence hotline doubled in March alone.

The government claims that domestic violence would have worsened further if alcohol had been available, but countries such as Spain have experienced much smaller increases in domestic violence without forbidding the sale of drink.  

Students of history will not be surprised that prohibition in South Africa has been fuelling many other forms of crime. Alcohol and cigarettes have been widely sold on the street (without social distancing).

Where does the new generation of Al Capones get their supply? One option is to loot and rob liquor stores, as has been happening on a grand scale since the ban was introduced.

Another is to roll contraband over the country’s notoriously porous borders.   

While the bans have been a boon to black marketeers, the government’s coffers have been hit hard.

South African Revenue Service commissioner Ed Kieswetter had said that prohibition has reversed many times over the country’s recent advances in combatting illicit trade, and the treasury missed out on 1.7 billion Rand in "sin tax" revenue in April alone.   

Another familiar consequence of prohibition is the consumption of unregulated alcohol - or "moonshine". Brewing and distilling is best left to the professionals.

When criminals and amateurs try their hand at it, it can be lethal. Hundreds of people have died around the world, from South Africa to Iran to Mexico, from drinking unregulated alcohol since the pandemic began. 

These dangers are well-known to governments and health officials.

Globally, one in every four bottles of alcohol is illicit, and unlicensed alcohol makes up as much as 50 percent of alcohol consumption in parts of Latin America and Africa. 

The association representing South Africa's 1 400 liquor stores says the country’s planned prohibition rollback "will be too late" to save businesses from closing.

South Africa’s wine industry could lose about 300 producers and 14 000 jobs, according to Rico Basson, CEO of Vinpro. The longer it goes on, the greater the damage to those who depend on the industry for their livelihoods. 

And for what? The government initially gave no serious justification for such wide-ranging restrictions, and its retrospective claims about freeing up hospital beds looks shaky in the light of what has happened in other countries.

It seems more likely that over-zealous officials saw the lockdown as an excuse for the kind of heavy-handed paternalism of which they had often dreamt, but never found politically feasible.  

South Africa, crippled by decades of corruption and an economy in crisis, cannot afford to let blind dogma trump the social and economic arguments for lifting prohibition immediately.

A century after the US began its disastrous attempt to eradicate drinking, the facts have not changed.

Prohibition does not prohibit. It enriches criminals, robs governments of much-needed tax revenue, cultivates opportunities for public sector corruption, and puts people out of work.  

The current ban is dangerous, costly and self-defeating.

Perhaps every generation needs to learn the lessons of prohibition anew. It is a shame that the South African government has decided to learn the hard way. 

- Christopher Snowdon is the head of lifestyle economics at the UK’s Institute for Economic Affairs and author of The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800. 

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This is long overdue
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The current permitted alcohol level isn't the problem - irresponsible drivers are
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A zero tolerance approach to drinking and driving is unworkable in SA
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