President Mokgweetsi Masisi should be feeling the frustration that his predecessor felt in similarly failed effort to curb alcohol trade.
An uncomfortably high number of Batswana has always been frightfully keen on alcohol consumption and as one of the COVID-19 control measures, the government has suspended alcohol trade even as other sectors of the national economy are opened up. While all establishments that sell alcohol are officially closed, alcohol trade continues abated in various forms. In the black market, there is stock clearing by some licensed traders and as the bulk of such stock in beer and cider has ran out, only the truly deep-pocketed or priority-bending imbibers are now able to experience the feeling of inebriation by buying extortionately-priced bottled liquor. At press time, the black market was selling 750 milllilitre bottles of Chivas Regal Scotch Whiskey for P1200 while same-sized bottles of Beefeater London Gin, Cruz Vodka Black and Cruz Watermelon all sold for P1000. Reports from around the country indicate that lockdown retail prices are typically inflated by a minimum of 100 percent and maximum of more than 200 percent.
Where imbibers are not buying alcohol in the black market, they are brewing it for themselves at home, mostly using fruits. In addition to COVID-19, this moonshine presents another public health challenge because the home-brewers lack the requisite knowledge to mix ingredients that make such brews. Someone who used apples to make himself what he convinced himself was a Hunters Gold-like cider says that he woke up with a debilitating hangover that stayed with him for longer than a hangover normally does. He chalks this down to having used too much yeast and having let his concoction ferment longer than professional brewers would have. As the Botswana Police Service spokesman, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Dipheko Motube, was recently quoted as saying, home-brewing is a criminal offence.
While the health aspect is not stressed well enough, the consumption of alcohol has potential to defeat effort by the government to contain the spread of COVID-19. Alcohol compromises immunity and immune-compromised body is more susceptible to attack by the coronavirus.
The government is facing an unusual challenge because in Botswana, alcohol is also more than just a recreational drug; it is also social glue that binds imbibers together. This adhesive function has potential to defeat the objectives of extreme social distancing. At a more substantive level, the imbiber communities that become networks of care and support are formed around drinking. Social football clubs, which use alcohol as standard sacrament, provide financial and other support to team members who are going through a rough patch. This is what the no-sale liquor law that is being applied during the lockdown has to contend with.
While he wasn’t dealing with a public health emergency, Masisi’s predecessor, General Ian Khama, also tried without success, to limit access to alcohol. There is a view among both health professionals and the police that Khama’s alcohol policies led to the epidemic of drug abuse that Botswana is still grappling with. A traditional leader, Khama comes from a long line of Bangwato traditional leaders (dikgosi) who tried but also failed to curb alcohol consumption. At a time that dikgosi had more powers than they do now, Bangwato Regent, Tshekedi Khama, failed to keep alcohol out of his own capital, Serowe. Sober men would sneak out of the village into the bush and upon return hours later, would be jaywalking back home.