Lockdown | Unlikely govt will lift ban on alcohol sales, say economists

Economists say the National Command Council is highly unlikely to lift the ban on alcohol sales during the lockdown, because the liquor industry is not affected any differently to other non-essential businesses that are not allowed to trade.

On Tuesday afternoon, the State Attorney responded to the Gauteng Liquor Forum’s letter, saying that President Cyril Ramaphosa will take its concerns to the National Command Council for discussion this week.

The Forum wrote a letter to Ramaphosa on Friday, threatening to take ban of alcohol sales to Constitutional Court. The body, which represents over 20 000 taverns and shebeens in Gauteng townships, wants government to review the ban and implement restricted trading conditions instead.

Dr Sifiso Ntombela, trade economist at the National Agricultural Marketing Council, said the referral of the Forum’s demands to the Command Council isn’t in any way an indication that government is considering lifting the ban.

“I think the president wants to put the merits of the Forum’s argument to the command force so that it can be a collective decision that has looked at all the affected spheres of the economy. Basically, he’s saying ‘I don’t want to make the decision on my own,” said Ntombela.

‘It’s not them alone’

The State Attorney said in the letter to the Forum that the president does not concede to anything by referring the matter to the Council.

Small and micro businesses such as shebeens qualify for relief offered under the Tourism Relief Fund, the letter added.

Xhanti Payi, economist and founding director at Nascence Advisory and Research, said there are many other industries affected as much as sheebens and taverns, and the Forum would have to present a compelling argument why liquor traders are an exception.

“It’s the same for all sectors. It’s not them alone. Informal builders are not allowed to extend houses. Mechanics are not allowed to fix our cars. The informal sector of the construction industry is around 400 000 people. So, I don’t see how you can leave that sector closed and then go open the liquor stores when you know intoxicated people pose a danger to the system,” said Payi.

While the Forum is proposing limited trading hours for sheebens and taverns, Payi said the problem is that South Africans are binge drinkers and it would be difficult to keep them at home.

Ntombela said the purpose of a lockdown is prioritising saving lives. With alcohol having an indirect impact on some of the social ills in the country, an intoxicated public could reverse the impact that the lockdown has had in containing the spread of the virus, he said.

Eric Mabuza, who is representing the Gauteng Liquor Forum, said the proposals put forward, which include limiting the quantities of alcohol people can buy and banning on-site drinking, would address such concerns.

“The issue of people becoming unruly when they are drunk, it won’t happen because they will not be drinking from shebeens. They will be drinking from home. Right now, wealthy people who have cellars in their houses are drinking every day. They are not breaking any rules by doing that,” said Mabuza.

He said what’s needed to ensure that people don’t break lockdown rules is police visibility.

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