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The government places the blame on alcohol for violence-related hospitalisations that are clogging up hospital beds. But there is a school of thought that there is something other than Covid-19 containment behind the ANC decision to prohibit the sale and distribution of alcohol yet allow people to travel cheek-by-jowl in taxis. In this interview with BizNews founder Alec Hogg, Lucky Ntimane – who represents about 35,000 tavern owners – says the decision to suddenly shut drinking holes and implement a booze ban is going to cause enormous financial difficulty to an estimated 1m people. – Editor
Joining us now is Lucky Ntimane from the Taverners Association. Mr Ntimane, how many members do you have, how many people do you represent?
The number is about 34,500 nationally. In all nine provinces across the country.
You must have got a big shock last night when you saw the president announcing that there would be no more liquor sales?
We were extremely shocked, and especially given the fact that we’re proactive in reaching out to the government to try and have a conversation with them. We understood the reports coming out around trauma cases increasing. We wanted to sit down with the government to try and find ways in which we can propose a solution that will look at preserving lives and also preserving levels, as it were.
What did you suggest to them?
We wanted to look at an issue around consumer behaviour because that’s what the problem is. We wanted to look at programmes that will talk to the responsible consumption of alcohol, but we found that on our own, we cannot do this. We need it to be social partners together with the government in order to deliver this. We had good support from liquor manufactures, who were all on board with this initiative that we were coming up with. As it turned out, the government didn’t come back to us. The best way that it came back, was to announce that they are closing the entire industry.
34,500 taverners, these are licensed establishments?
Yes, these are licensed establishments.
It’s presumably not just one-man shows?
No, it’s not. We did some calculations, each tavern employs on average around three people. If you then extrapolate that number to 34,500. Just over 100,000 people are going to be affected by this. Over and above the 200,000 levels that are linked to the tavern owner themselves, adding one million, which is the entire chain of the alcohol industry. So it’s a big number.
How long are you anticipating that this ban will last for?
Based on how our government shocked us last night, it will not be wise to try and guess how long this is going to last. It’s very risky.
People still want, as we’ve seen from cigarettes, they still want to have their alcohol. Are they going to find alternative supplies, i.e., illegal or unlicensed premises?
One thing that the government’s position managed to achieve yesterday, was the promotion of the illicit alcohol trade. That is going to boom and it’s going to be run by people that have no regard to the law that have no responsibility to any Covid-19 regulation that are going to fuel other forms of criminality as a result of the policies that they’ll get from this illicit trade. It’s a mess that was created last night.
If we look at your 34,500 Taverner members, surely they would be incentivised. They have to eat, so they might be incentivised to break the law and to open but in a way that is not aboveboard?
I have no confidence that the government is going to consider incentivising the taverns for being closed. In the first instance of a lockdown out of that 34,500 members, only 1,000 of them got some support using other means other than the government. We have no confidence that the government will come to the party this time around. If you look at government agencies, their mandates are very clear. No support for liquor businesses. Our traders are left on their own, they’re facing economic ruin. Half of them will not be able to open and when the government does decide to bring back the sale of alcohol.
My point is, if they’ve already got customers and they’ve already got supply chains, would they not go illegal themselves?
I would shudder to think that because they know that the licence for their survival, is in the liquor licence. If they take a risk and lose that, they have no future whatsoever to talk about, but if they weather, the storm, maybe there might be something for them. I will not even advise them to try and go illegal.
The other side of the story is that the majority of South Africans are very unhappy about the impact of alcohol on gender-based violence, etc.. How could you have addressed that or how could you have worked together with government to ensure that that big festering sore in our society didn’t run over?
It’s actually interesting to note that 54% of our taverns are run by women, who are bearing the brunt of the gender-based violence. Taverns are the best-place-to-be areas in which issues of gender-based violence can be better addressed, and those were some of the options that we were putting on the table to government. It was part of the plan that we said specifically as well to the presidency to say we want to look at three things, gender-based violence, responsible consumption of alcohol, and Covid-19 to see how we can work together, as liquor traders with the government. It’s on top of our mind the issue of gender-based violence. As liquor traders, we will remain committed to being the voice against gender-based violence to the country.
That’s very interesting. Just say that percentage again of owned by women.
It’s more than half. Are there any ways that you could, or would your members have actually ascribed to a view of saying only two drinks or only three drinks per person? Could that ever be enforced?
Yes, it can be enforced. Our members are prepared to work with the government in this and unprecedented times. No one knows how to deal with this situation that we’re in and we remain committed, to listening to the government’s views on how best we can work together. As we all know, they have not been willing to sit down with us and have a proper conversation or even have a conversation at all. Our members would be willing to consider such an option.
What do you do now?
We are consulting with members on the ground on the way forward. We haven’t finalised what that we would like.
I ask this because the taxi industry seems to have somehow managed to get its way.
We know how they’ve got that, threat and violence in some instances and we do not want to go that route. We still have confidence that the government will want to sit down with us. We will keep the doors open, for them to come to us and engage with us so that we can find a solution. The issue of alcohol abuse, we cannot postpone it to post-Covid, it is an issue that we have avoided as a country, it’s an old problem. It’s about time that we face it head-on, and closing the entire industry to achieve that is not a way to go.
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