What is South Africa’s problem with alcohol?

 In Coronavirus, South Africa

‘Doubtless, flooding this scenario with alcohol can be like squirting lighter fluid on a fire. But remember that some 40% of the cases in the domestic abuse study above happened without the assistance of alcohol, and domestic abuse continued during lockdown despite the ban. Reducing alcohol might reduce temporarily reduce eruptions, but many frustrations would only be displaced to other outlets, including various kinds of mental illness, or simply delayed.’

The first ban on alcohol during the lockdowns was not motivated by health but for control reasons: Cele intended to skop and donder people into compliance, not deploy a force to patiently explain how the virus spreads to people doing stupid things during an epidemic, and he didn’t want drunken crowds challenging that brute policing strategy. Since then, however, much has been said about the fact that casualty wards were unusually quiet after alcohol was banned during the lockdown, and arguments to retain the ban, some moralistic and some practicalistic, have taken shape. According to this narrative, alcohol causes a bunch of social problems and we would all be happier without it.

But alcohol is not a virus that infects people without our own involvement – people decide to pick up a bottle and when to put it down. But we do not use alcohol in circumstances we chose, and therefore use or overuse of alcohol is not a moral or individual failing. Alcohol’s physical effects act on bodies which are embedded in society.

Alcohol is widely used because it is legal, easily available, and because, for most people, a few drinks make us feel good, and who gets enough of that in this world? We start to loosen up and feel relaxed. We feel chatty and sociable, the shitty week at work starts to fade in importance, we start to love our friends and we take little risks we wouldn’t easily take while sober. A great number of relationships and dance parties would never have gotten started without the lubrication of alcohol.

But it can’t be denied that alcohol is there in a great deal of violence and road carnage, and has facilitated a lot of rape and family abuse. One study implicated alcohol in 60% of domestic abuse cases which came to the attention of the authorities ­(although, importantly, the authors of the study suggested that the role of alcohol was not only on the side of the perpetrator, but also that drunk victims could not escape easily; only in gun crime were the victims just as likely to be sober as drunk). Spending on alcohol might compete with spending on food, which increases tensions around it in households.  Alcohol can also play a role in cementing masculinity through competitive drinking, which, depending on the drunk people’s interpretation of masculinity, could lead to gender based violence, fighting or other forms of self-harm. Addiction to alcohol kills alcoholics slowly and destroys homes, even in the absence of abuse.

Another study estimated that around 17% of South Africa’s adult population is dependent on alcohol, which is close to half of the drinking population. In some areas, this dependence is rooted in generations of farmworkers being controlled via organized, forced addiction to alcohol in the past – the dop system on farms kept workers compliant by paying them partly in a tot of brandy every morning, thus getting them ‘addicted’ to their workplaces.

The dop system is one of the many ways in which South Africa’s alcohol problem is revealed to really be a capitalism problem, and that’s why a ban is unlikely to solve the dark side of drinking.

Alcohol works on us partly by reducing inhibitions – we stop censoring what we do. This can help us to loosen up, to backchat a cop, or to fly into a rage at our best friend over a passing comment. This should remind us that what is underneath or inside is foundational to the role that alcohol plays.

Alcohol plays a contradictory role for capitalism, of both releasing and unleashing tensions. Overuse of alcohol is driven primarily by the need to relax fast or to drown our sorrows. Alcohol is the short-cut for workers to unwind in a world where the weekend, short as it is, must be used for fixing the house, shopping and parenting – the work of maintaining the proletariat. And for those struggling to make a living, no amount of yoga will materialize the next meal, but drinking enough alcohol quickly enough is effective for achieving a temporary obliteration of your consciousness that will also temporarily obliterate your problems, where other ways of unwinding will only give you more time to brood on them.

The problem with using alcohol as a quick release is that, when the alcohol wears off, the problems are still there, your boss is still on your back, the obligations to family and bank are still trapping you. A drink made you feel nice a few hours ago, so it makes sense to keep drinking – but as you drink more, and the layers peel away, the dark frustrations that you have been keeping down may come flooding out. Additionally, the nice feeling of unwinding and forgetting stress comes from the depressive effects of alcohol: it deadens your experience and makes you feel detached from your body and your senses. But that same feeling, when it lasts, is the classic state of depression, where everything seems flat and grey and hopeless. Then a drink seems like the way to pick yourself up again, which helps to suck some people into a cycle of addiction.

Clearly alcohol is not solving people’s problems – but it obscures most of the picture if we say it is causing them.

South Africans have violent responses under the influence of alcohol because we live in a very tense, violent and dehumanizing society, coming from a brutal and dehumanizing society. We live in a society scarred by apartheid, where the vast majority of Black people in particular still cannot trust that their lives and skills are valued: where great numbers of people have been treated as disposable via retrenchments, forced removals, under-resourced hospitals, poverty wages and a massacre of miners; where cuts to government spending have shifted more and more of a burden of social care onto the home, along with more and more tensions.

Doubtless, flooding this scenario with alcohol can be like squirting lighter fluid on a fire. But remember that some 40% of the cases in the domestic abuse study above happened without the assistance of alcohol, and domestic abuse continued during lockdown despite the ban. Reducing alcohol might reduce temporarily reduce eruptions, but many frustrations would only be displaced to other outlets, including various kinds of mental illness, or simply delayed.

Simply telling people to drink less fails to grasp why people drink too much. Alcohol’s physical effects on the body are only part of the picture. Happy people make happy drunks, and don’t pursue the sensation of obliteration. It is no accident that many of the ill effects of alcohol are associated with a person’s material circumstances: richer people suffer fewer negative effects from alcohol, physically and socially, even though they have greater access to it.

This brings us to the other entanglement of capitalism with unhealthy use of alcohol. The company previously known as South African Breweries, a home-grown giant and now a multinational across Africa, must encourage addiction in its search to expand its profits.

Having saturated markets up and down the continent, the remaining space to expand is to encourage drinkers to drink more and to get more people drinking. The youth market is therefore a big prize for them, pursued through fruity flavoured alcopops, and alcohol must be sold at every possible moment of the day or night. Breweries don’t ask or care what situation they are pouring the dop into because they don’t carry the costs of a reckless promotion of alcoholism, except very mildly and indirectly through taxes. Individual companies decry alcohol as a productivity problem in their workplaces, but they don’t make the connection with the prevailing work conditions or the way capitalism has ravaged society, nor with the state’s shrinking capacity to assist social casualties while the home sphere is left to fend for people broken by the pressure.

Our approach to alcohol-implicated problems in society should be supportive of the people affected, not based on punishment. It would also be completely fair to call the Breweries to account for the consequences of their addiction to accumulation, by taxing their profits to support public hospitals and rehabilitation centers.  But we know of course that they would just pass this cost on to drinkers, and not stop trying to increase their markets. Therefore we have to start flipping the script on capitalism. For example, what if we think about the road carnage associated with alcohol first of all as a crisis of safe, plentiful and frequent public transport? What if we think about the social crises associated with alcohol as crises of a maldistribution of production, wealth and power, better solved by revolution than by prohibition?

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