Government’s order to keep liquor stores closed on weekends was not recommended by the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 (MAC). Alcohol traders and industry representatives were taken aback by the news after an advisory memo from the committee to the minister of health was published.
The memo, dated 6 September and published 13 September, suggests returning to the usual hours for alcohol sales as outlined by the Liquor Act. It also states that increasing the number of days on which alcohol can be sold for off-site consumption by only one day “is difficult to justify, and so a return to normal selling hours is preferable”.
Reacting to the news, the South African Liquor Brand Owners Association (SALBA) said it is concerned that government deviated from the advice of its own scientists and imposed unnecessary restrictions.
“The decision of government to impose restrictions on alcohol sales, without a clear scientific basis and advice, can only serve to erode public confidence that these restrictions are implemented with genuine interest to contain the spread of infections and impact of Covid-19 on our society,” says SALBA chairperson Sibani Mngadi.
This is not the first time that recommendations by the committee were ignored by government.
The third total ban on alcohol sales was also not recommended by the MAC. This ban lasted from 28 December 2020 to 31 January 2021 in response to the second wave of Covid-19 infections. In its advisory note, the MAC recommended at the time that off-consumption sales be limited to Mondays to Thursdays. However, government implemented a total ban of all sales.
‘Government is killing us’
The livelihoods of business owners in the alcohol industry have been severely impacted by alcohol bans; people like Sibusiso Skhosana, a licenced beer brewer and founder of 1632 Crafts.
Skhosana tells Food For Mzansi that announcements like the one made by president Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday (11 September) come as a surprise, making it impossible to plan effectively.
“The announcement was made on Sunday, but on the production side it takes me about three to four weeks to completely brew and package my brand. By the time it’s four weeks, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Will we go back to level three?” Skhosana wants to know.
If this were to happen, it would mean that Skhosana would once again be stuck with excess beer, bills to pay and no income streaming in. “We are losing out because government’s actions are ignorant and they are not taking the advice of people on the ground.”
He found it very hard to make projections in recent months and he is still not sure when his business will bounce back.
“It’s strenuous on us as beer brewers. Right now, some of us are sitting with stock that’s reaching expiration dates within a few weeks’ time.”
On top of that, he says, they are being challenged by illicit alcohol traders. “There are so many bogus taverns and bogus pubs opening everywhere. It’s killing the legal beer industry because these illicit traders are even hiking the prices,” says Skhosana.
No explanations on beer bans
SALBA has repeatedly asked for the reasoning behind the decisions to prohibit or limit off-consumption alcohol sales. They want to understand the thinking that informs these decisions but government has not given any explanations, says Mngadi.
“We have continually confirmed our willingness to work with the government, with the common objective of limiting the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and putting the South African economic trajectory on a growth path,” he said.
“We were assured by the president that decisions were based on recommendations from the scientific advisers on the MAC.”
Alcohol bans a ‘socio-economic disaster’
SALBA chief executive officer Kurt Moore reiterates that the multiple bans on alcohol sales implemented during 2020 and 2021 were a national socio-economic disaster.
“The cumulative impact of the bans put 200 200 jobs supported by the alcohol value chain at risk in the nation’s informal and formal economy. Sales revenue lost as a result of the bans was approximately R36.3 billion,” Moore points out.
It is also reported that, so far, the country’s annualised GDP loss due to the prohibitions is approximately R51.9 billion. The tax revenue loss (excluding excise) amounts to a further R29.3 billion.
In addition to these economic losses, Moore says, there has been a significant rise in the illegal trade of alcohol due to the restrictions imposed on the formal alcohol industry.
“To put things into perspective, in 2020 the illicit market was worth R20.5 billion, which is R6.5 billion more than the R14 billion budget that the South African Police Service is allocated for criminal investigations. In 2020 SARS lost R11.3bn to the illicit alcohol trade. This is R1 billion more than the R10.3 billion allocated for Covid-19 vaccines.”
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