On the 12th July 2020, President Ramaphosa announced a ban on the sale and the distribution of alcohol. The government claimed that the ban of alcohol would reduce the pressure on hospitals. According to the government, since the temporary ban was lifted, hospitals came under pressure due to the increase in trauma cases related to the abuse of alcohol and this is causing a shortage of hospital beds for Covid-19 patients.
In addition to blaming the use of alcohol for the shortage of beds, the President, in the same announcement, blamed the behaviour of the masses for the uncontrollable spread of the coronavirus, saying the masses are reckless and careless and are not taking the virus seriously.
With the ban on alcohol and the shifting of the blame to the masses, the government wants to exonerate and extricate itself from the responsibility of combating the coronavirus. It is an attempt to hide its complete failure to protect the masses from the coronavirus, to flatten the curve of infection and contain its spread. In the very same announcement, the government allowed the taxis to have 100% occupancy. We all know that the virus spread with the movement and concentration of people. With the opening of the economy and the easing of the lockdown, workers concentrate at transport spaces, in the workplaces and because of years of government neglect the masses are forced to live in over-crowed spaces. And with the failure of the government to provide protection to workers and their families in the form of a decent income and food workers were forced to go back to work.
The shortage of hospital beds for Covid-19 patients is not caused by the use of alcohol, but rather a direct result of 24 years of neo-liberal austerity where we have seen massive cuts in Health Budgets. As recent as February 2020, the Minister of Finance in his Budget Speech announced cuts in health expenditure. This neo-liberal austerity has given rise to a two-tier health system – where we have a dysfunctional, chaotic, under-resourced and understaffed public health system alongside a well-developed private health system for the rich.
The banning of the sale and distribution of alcohol is not accompanied by measures to deal with the inevitable impact on the industry, workers, their jobs and income and small businesses like taverns and liquor stores. The workers in the industry have been left to the mercy of the employers. Already these employers are retrenching workers, and want to lay-off more workers, cut wages and benefits of workers.
This ban was unilaterally imposed, without engaging the workers and small business owners. This is typical of the conduct of the South African government where it is only engaging with the masses at times of elections. After elections the masses are mere passive recipients of dictates from the government. Here we have a case of the elected becoming the masters of the people who elected them, and ruling in favour of the minority rather than the majority.
Whilst rejecting the government’s approach to the ban of alcohol we must still engage with alcohol and its impact on the working class. We cannot deny that there is abuse of alcohol and alcoholism is a problem within the working class. Alcohol and patriarchy are a toxic combination resulting in the phenomenon of gender-based violence and the disintegration of working class families. Many a working class family, in particular women, dread Fridays and Saturdays. These days and nights are associated with conflict and violence in many a working class home.
We need to understand that the abuse of alcohol is rooted in the alienation generated by capitalist exploitation. Under capitalism the working class is reduced to mere commodities. They are not considered to be human beings with needs and families. They are treated the same as any other commodity, be it a bottle of coke or a machine. Further their creations in the production process, i.e. the products, appear as objects of their exploitation and oppression. They are not involved in the conception and planning of these products, but are reduced to perform repetitive and monotonous work which is regulated by the speed and rhythms of machines. They become mere appendages of the machines. The vast majority of their life-time is spent in the service of capital; the hours traveling to work and back, the long hours at work and the hours used for recuperation are in the service of capital. There is no time for family, for culture and recreation.
Further unemployment strips the unemployed of all dignity and self-worth where one is reduced to the status of a beggar and pauper. Access to work under capitalism is the nexus to be considered a human being, to be deserving of the necessities of life. With no access to work one is reduced to nothing. The working class turns to alcohol to escape from this alienation, degradation and drudgery. Alcohol is perceived as a form of relief from this constant estrangement, humiliation and hard manual labour.
In working class communities there are also no alternative amusement and entertainment facilities. It is said that the character of a child is revealed and formed by its play, and that the character of an adult is shown in his play and amusements. Humans have a natural and legitimate need for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing and laughter. In the absence of alternative amusement outlets, alcohol becomes the means to address this natural need.
In the context of combating the Covid-19 pandemic the temporary ban on the sale and distribution of alcohol must go hand in hand with education, the repurposing/retooling of the alcohol and liquor industry, protection workers and small businesses, and the creation of alternative amusement and entertainment outlets. In this way we will not only combat Covid-19 but also contribute to the creation of the elements of an alternative form of social life and society. In this struggle for an alternative society the working class would have to deal with the question of abuse of alcohol, alcoholism and the root causes thereof.
- That the alcohol and liquor industry-value chain of production must be repurposed/retooled to produce alcohol that is socially useful for the combating of the Covid-19 pandemic – i.e. produce sanitizers, anti-septics and disinfectants and so forth. The production of the glass containers must be redirected to produce glass containers for these socially useful products
- The South African state temporary nationalizes under workers control the production side of the alcohol and liquor value chain to give effect to this repurposing/retooling
- That the South African state bail out the small business – like taverns and liquor stores – and assist them in temporary transforming into nodes for the sale and distribution of sanitizers and other socially useful products.
- That South African state legislate a moratorium on retrenchments in the industry
- That South African state legislate a moratorium on wage/salary cuts and cuts in other benefits.
- That there be mass education on the negative effects of the abuse of alcohol
- That the South African state build and create alternative forms of amusement and entertainment in working class communities.
The South African state and its capital bosses are not going to take these demands seriously unless workers in the alcohol and liquor industry unite and build organs of workers power in the workplaces. To this effect we are calling all workers in the breweries, glass manufacturing, packaging, distribution and sale of liquor to come together and unite.
Further as the working class we need to unite with the small businesses operating in the selling of liquor and develop a joint programme of action around these demands.