Government’s plan to open up but limit liquor trade as part of the COVID-19 containment plan is not going as swimmingly as it had hoped.
Liquor trade was shut down a few days before the April-May national lockdown but reopened with limited hours and a three-day dry spell during the week. The trade occurs from Wednesday to Saturday but some enterprising individuals have stepped up to close the Sunday to Tuesday trading gap. While these people are keeping drinkers happy, they are also breaking two separate pieces of legislation. In addition to the law that criminalises the sale of alcohol on Sunday to Tuesday, price-gouging that is designed to take advantage of COVID-19-occasioned shortage is also an offence. The difficulty with the latter though is that officially, shebeens don’t exist and for that reason, their trade is not recognised by the government.
For what it’s worth, prices for the Sunday-to-Tuesday trade are not as exorbitant as those that were charged by the black market during the national lockdown. At the height of the lockdown, the prices of alcohol beverages that were sold on this market had gone up by as much as 200 percent. At one point, 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. From what Sunday Standard learns, the Sunday-to-Tuesday trade inflates prices by no more than 50 percent – which still brings in good money.
While shebeens are a law enforcement challenge, the greater challenge comes from the fact that more and more households are going into the Sunday-to-Tuesday liquor trade as reality and survival instincts kick in. The reality is that COVID-19, whose full impact is yet to be felt, is devastating the economy and far too many revenue streams have either dried up or are drying up for many in a country where the poverty rate stands at 46 percent. Research from the Rand Merchant Bank of South Africa says that close to half the population (meaning well over 1million people) are “economically marginalised.” As survival instincts kick in, some of these people have a choice between staying on the right of the law and making money to survive on the wrong side of it.
This trade is also imperiling the government’s effort to contain the spread of coronavirus because it occurs in very private spaces where it is not easy for the police to enforce COVID-19 regulations on the size of gatherings, social distancing and mask-wearing. Owing to what it does to the human brain, alcohol is likelier to make drinkers reckless and thus become a public health threat. COVID-19 doesn’t give governments too many options but in an alternative universe where it did, it would have made sense to keep liquor establishments closed. However, such decision would have been detrimental to the national economy as well as to the livelihood of thousands of people who work either in the liquor industry or in businesses aligned to it.
As with many more issues COVID-19-related issues that the government has to deal with, alcohol consumption has become the problem on account of long-standing problems that have been allowed to get out of hand. As a direct result of alcohol abuse, Botswana pays too high a price in terms of blood and treasure but where a robust public education programme would be more desirable to arrest thus problem, the government prefers to police alcohol sale.
The government also faces an unusual challenge because in Botswana, alcohol is more than just a recreational drug – it is also social glue that binds drinkers together. This adhesive function has potential to defeat the objectives of extreme social distancing. At a more substantive level, drinker 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.
On the whole, there has been no creative problem-solving around alcohol abuse and the public education programme has persistently missed the cultural context of how people relate to alcohol.
For a country that is frightfully keen on international benchmarking, Botswana has never sought to internationally benchmark how other cultures deal with alcohol abuse. In some Jewish sub-cultures, children are introduced to alcohol (red wine) at a young but medically safe age and always drink it under the supervision of their parents. The amount of alcohol a child is served at the dinner table increases with age but never goes beyond a three-quarter-full glass. Children raised this way learn a very important life lesson: that alcohol is taken in moderation and if they choose to drink in adult life, will always limit themselves to just one glass.
Conversely, Batswana children grow up thinking that alcohol is a magical if forbidden beverage that makes adults very happy. The precocious began indulging in secret, with no supervision and in most cases overindulge. When they are old enough and start working, they are already overindulging. In one respect, overindulging by Africans has a lot to do with colonialism. At least by deducing from what Robert Moffat writes in his memoirs about his first experiences of Kanye, only the kgosi drank strong alcohol. Moffat noticed that the alcohol that Kgosi Makaba II, the Bangwaketse kgosi, drank in the afternoon was of a stronger variety than that drunk by his subjects. This would have had the result of limiting over-indulgence to very few people in society. Today it is subjects who drink Stroh 80 while the kgosi drinks St. Louis 24.
The other possible solution to alcohol abuse (lowering the drinking age) is one that would shock most parents but one has been proposed by addiction experts and specifically targets teenagers who drink out of rebellion. In the particular case of Botswana, the latter would mean allowing children younger than 18 years to drink legally. The rationale for this proposal is that teenagers who drink out of rebellion would not find alcohol attractive if it can be easily bought and drunk like a can of Coke. To the extent, this proposal is valid, if style-walking is outlawed and drinking age lowered, teen rebels would be drawn to style-walking than drinking alcohol.
Not only did colonialism introduce stronger alcoholic beverages, it also introduced alien drinking sub-culture that led to alcohol abuse. Startled to find that western alcohol reduced adult Africans to mere children, British colonial settlers in Kenya coined the term “African drunkenness.” What they didn’t understand was that in African culture, a limited amount of alcohol is brewed and drunk to the last dregs within a day because otherwise it would go bad. Africans who came into contact with Europeans didn’t adjust their drinking habits and treated a full bottle of whiskey the same they would a full cup of traditional beer: drink it up within a day. This habit persists to this day.