Monday, September 21, 2020

I doubt if Khama is winning the alcohol battle

The president wears a smile on his face everytime he announces the millions of money accrued from his alcohol levy.
I know I should be saying government’s alcohol levy but it is President Khama himself who makes the levy seem like a one-man initiative. I listened when he addressed Kgotla meetings in the Letlhakeng area and he repeatedly announced, “I took the money from those who drink alcohol…”, “I have instructed that the money be used in….”

His habit of using the personal pronoun ‘I’ makes it difficult to distinguish between his personal and government decisions because by their nature, government decisions are a collective responsibility he shares with his cabinet ministers and, as such, I would expect the president to say “we” instead of ‘I”.

The use of “we” would imply that heads come together before government policies are implemented and it would save Khama the burden of being labeled unilateralist. Anyway that is not the gist of my deliberation today. Afterall, he has gone on record that he will lead through directives.
The president tells us that, to date, P180 million has been realized from the alcohol levy since its introduction in October 2008.

Now that’s quite phenomenal to have a policy that bulges the government purse within such a relatively short period of time. We are also told that the money will be used in programs geared towards youth empowerment, education and rehabilitation of victims of alcohol abuse. That, too, is commendable. In fact the government needed not wait for alcohol revenue to step up efforts on youth empowerment programs because with or without imbibers’ donations, through the levy, government is obliged to empower the youth anyway.

When Khama announced the 30 percent alcohol levy, actually he initially placed it at 70 percent, I was of the belief he was hoping not only to make money per se but rather to reduce the amount of alcohol consumption and indeed reduce the number of elbow-benders in the country. I have strong convictions that the levy has failed to achieve its intended purpose of reducing alcohol consumption.

What it is has, however, achieved is to be a lucrative way of making quick, huge money for the government, and I never took that to be the initial intention. All one has to do to realize there is no stopping in alcohol consumption is to visit liquor outlets, more especially on weekends. The queues at liquor outlets outsmart, literally, the ones we witnessed in the past general elections. You also just have to visit all these expensive pubs scattered in Gaborone and you will realize the alcohol levy is the least of revelers’ worries.

I must state that I am in no way trying to advocate for alcohol abuse but the ultimate truth is: increasing alcohol prices can never deter people from buying alcohol.

When you think you are punishing alcohol consumers by escalating alcohol prices you are only making matters worse because they will in turn abuse their finances. Alcohol has always been there even before Bechuanaland was discovered and it will never be extinct with Botswana, let alone with Khama. By increasing alcohol prices, Khama will succeed in accumulating more revenue for government but his ultimate quest to have an alcohol free Botswana will only remain a hollow dream.

However, it is pleasing to note that government is putting in place a special fund to be known as the Levy on Alcohol Beverages Fund, whose purpose will be to promote projects and activities designed to combat alcohol abuse and addiction and minimize the effects of alcohol abuse.

This is indeed a welcome development because only public education, and not hiking of prices, can stop alcohol abuse. The bitter truth about alcohol is that majority of its consumers do not budget for it despite the fact that they know it always finds its way into their monthly expenditure. What this therefore means is that alcohol ends up cutting out on the budget of other essentials such as groceries, school fees, bills and other important life necessities.

The other important thing that tee-totalers like our president seem to be ignorant of is that alcohol cannot be substituted for water or soft drinks. Khama once advised people who take alcohol to resort to water or soft drinks when they are thirsty. The truth is people do not drink alcohol to quench their thirst. The other truth is that it is not everyone who imbibes that abuses alcohol.

I feel pity for Sechaba Holdings, the owners of the local brewing companies which have been adversely affected by the alcohol levy. They are reported to have recorded one of the worst financial performances in the history of the company and the alcohol levy counts among the contributing factors.

Nowadays, it is common cause that locals have resorted to imported beer at the expense of local beers. I do not need to provide any researched statistics to reveal that Namibian Breweries have penetrated the Botswana market at an alarming rate.

When our government tied KBL’s hands, Namibian Breweries seized the opportunity and embraced the Botswana beer demand. While Namibian breweries come with catchy phrases like “life is about compromise, beer shouldn’t be”, our local brewers have bowed down to Khama, or rather government pressure and have now vowed never to place adverts that may give alcohol consumption some relevance.

I then wonder why they would still be in business if they are not free to advertise their products as much as it would make business sense. In any case we can be relieved that our government can clamp down on alcohol consumption only here but beyond our borders it will continue to flow.

As the government extols at the windfall of the alcohol levy, they ought to know that this can only serve to give some gratification to alcohol consumers.

Alcohol consumers can stand up tomorrow and brag, rightly so, that afterall their money did not go with the hangover but has sponsored programs geared towards youth empowerment. When you look at it from another angle, buying alcohol in Botswana is a benevolent gesture because, when you buy alcohol, you’re actually donating towards a good course in that your money will be used to finance youth projects.

So, while the idea of the alcohol levy is lauded to the skies, the skimmers ought to know it will not necessarily achieve its intended goals. It is only closing out on local enterprises while importers smile all the way to the bank. The alcohol levy was undoubtedly imposed to punish alcohol consumers. I hear the onslaught is now on gatherers of natural forest resources such as mophane worm and all those wild berries. As to what danger they pose to these resources I’m still to acquaint myself with meaningful reasons, if at all there are any.
For heaven’s sake those resources are seasonal for a reason.

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.