News analysis

No booze
  • The alcohol industry welcomed what it described as a "rational approach" to hotspots – notably limiting restrictions on booze geographically.
  • Relatively minor changes to how alcohol is sold were imposed in Nelson Mandela Bay, setting a precedent for what may happen in future hotspots.
  • But the Eastern Cape's liquor regulator is deeply unhappy about what it is seeing at outlets, and stricter rules could yet follow.
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When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the additional rules for South Africa's one current coronavirus hotspot, the liquor industry was palpably relieved.

Limiting harsher rules to hotspots was a "rational approach", the South African Liquor Brand Owners' Association (Salba) said.

That hasn't always been the view of the person responsible for making the rules, co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who had spoken publicly of a big government concern about regionally differentiated rules: enforcing them in the face of smuggling.

See also | Here’s how hotspots were supposed to work in SA the first time – before being abandoned

But instead of a major intervention in Nelson Mandela Bay, the pathfinder hotspot that may set a precedent for other areas, only minor limitations were imposed on the sale of booze; no alcohol may be consumed in public places, and sales and off-sales are banned from 18:00 and on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

That was by all accounts a hard-fought compromise amid competing pressures that included a political need to be seen to be taking action, the need to limit the financial impact of tighter restrictions as much as possible, and local and provincial governments both lobbying hard for the regulatory support they believed critical to their containment efforts.

The alcohol industry's contribution to the debate was a blunt one, a last-minute promise of R30 million worth of support, in the form of medical supplies, to the Eastern Cape, and a small force of "community patrollers" to check up on bars and shebeens. 

See also | Industry-funded 'community patrollers' to watch Eastern Cape bars and shebeens for coronavirus compliance

It is not clear to what extent that gesture towards self-enforcement influenced which decision-makers. Officials at various levels are not entirely unsympathetic to the alcohol industry. Some have pointed to the tax hit the fiscus took thanks to the first hard lockdown, insiders say, others rallied around the phrase "don't cancel Christmas", and the concern that a public already showing real fatigue in complying with coronavirus rules could not be coerced into compliance with overly-harsh restrictions.

That sympathy is rapidly wearing thin, though, as the Eastern Cape's infections spike – and its regulator says booze sellers are not keeping to the most basic rules.

On Monday the Eastern Cape Liquor Board described such outlets as "super spreaders" with a lack of mask-wearing and social distancing, while outlets also "ignore the trading times".

Some responsibility, the Board said, rests with consumers, and it called for more education, as well as public reports to the police where rules are flouted.

The heavy criticism of the alcohol industry provides potential cover for administrations that will most likely this week have to explain how the Eastern Cape, only the fourth-most populous province, came to have the highest number of official Covid-19 deaths in the country.

What that will mean for hotspot rules, in current and future hotspots, remains to be seen. But the celebrated "rational" approach to date has no guarantee of surviving the year.

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