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South Africa has a serious drinking problem, but alcohol companies always get their way out. The author calls more regulations to ensure that alcohol companies pays for the consequences that come with heavy drinking in the country. 

The African National Congress and the booze industry are looking down on Mandela’s rainbow baby, beaten and battling to breathe. They arrange themselves for a photo-shoot, and then mutter to the press, “it’s sad, very sad. But hang on, is she as bad as the kids over the road?”  

South Africa has monster-sized alcohol problems. It is time to get real and yet grown men and women still piddle on about a good age for drinking.  

The country has a “drink-the problem-away” and “only-drink-makes-it-fun” culture. Neither works for more than a few hours, yet getting stoned is practiced by the upper classes and no class alike. Guilt, pain, frustration, loneliness, failure … drink them all away, or enjoy the cricket by blowing your mind for a day or weekend.

Why it happens and why it continues is awfully easy to answer – money.

The Big Business

Every born-into-capitalism economist, South African politician and business-person can easily explain that alcohol is a dream model, and vital to gross domestic product (GDP). It is a product that pays for itself, and then adds on big extras by way of the medical industry – accidents, disease, violence, promiscuity, all yield enormous profits. [[1]]

The government talks of actual losses [[2]] and the liquor industry argues potential turnover lost [[3]] as if GDP growth determines the happiness of the people or the health of the country. There can be no future happiness and health either: South African foetal alcohol syndrome incidence is shocking [[4]].

Commenting on many alcohol-related deaths, in October 2016, the then Trade and Industry Minister, Robert Davies, said alcohol had a “harmful effect [on] individuals and communities as a whole”[[5]]. What an understatement! The emotional and behavioural damage never stops, the cost is incalculable.

Missing is that particular spirit called Community (or Ubuntu). It lies beyond money and its only objective is caring for human life and the environment as one interdependent entity. That is good government. Big Business is about self, maximising profit no matter the cost to humanity, and the environment. It too has a single goal: meeting shareholder expectations after, of course, executive remuneration.  

Using tax monies, the South African government is expected to clean up after Big Business – from polluted rivers to drunken brawl broken heads.  

The Distell Group’s shareholders’ dividend improved from 123 cents per share in 2005 to 346 cents in 2015[[6]].  The share tripled from 2008 to 2017 (Google Finance). The Chief Executive Officer’s remuneration is over R10 million (about US $ 848,000) a year [[7]]. The Director General of Health’s salary, the ministry very involved in the darker side of alcohol’s life-cycle (a vastly bigger job than making gin) is about R2 million [[8],[9]].  

South Africa’s GDP has risen from US $3445 in 1994 to US $5284 in 2016, but far from ushering in overall improvement in health or well-being, the rising white collar crime, the violence, small business failure rate, un- and underemployment, the flight of skills and Rand rate signpost an unhappy place. To top it all consider the alcohol road record; the Republic of South Africa (RSA) “… had the highest number of drunk driving incidents at 58 percent” in the world … (and the GDP growth champion) China the least at four percent”[[10]].

The real cost

Alcohol use produces outcomes, and the society-negative consequences of those outcomes need to be realised. At present only the profits of private companies that arise out of alcohol chaos are acknowledged.

The government needs to step around the current petty debate, stop being nanny to citizens and start behaving like the business it should itself be. It needs to be agreed that the alcohol industry’s huge profits are from now on stated after all costs are recognised.

A simple single example; if a motor accident is found to have been caused to any degree by alcohol, the state must be able to recover proportionately the last item in cost from the fireman’s overtime to the replacement of any concrete divot and all hospital costs from the liquor provider. And insurers should be considered involved: Forget exclusions. If a car (or health) policy is sold to a drinker and something goes wrong they join in the civil and criminal dock along with the alcohol industry. Knowing your customer is a business technique to reduce the risk of business – it is time to apply it.

As much as the criminal defence of being “under the influence” [of alcohol] must be tightened [[11]], the family of a drunk supplied must be enabled to sue alcohol companies for supplying. And for continuing to supply there must be a criminal charge. The industry knows the statistics. They must bear the costs of all who turn out to be problematic; the alcoholic and heavy (for whatever reason) drinker.

In South Africa “about 6.3 percent of disability-adjusted life-years lost are attributable to alcohol, and about 130 deaths are from alcohol-related causes every day”[[12]]. Family trauma and nation destruction – incalculable –is over and above those horrific figures.

Those harmed, government and citizens, must be able to sue and they must start now. That includes suing parents for being negligent, but it is also time to reel in the rope the liquor industry has allowed itself. 

Responsibility time

Until recently “… the idea that a company could be a criminal was alien to American law. The prevailing assumption was … that corporations had neither bodies to be punished nor souls to be condemned, and thus were incapable of being “guilty”[[13]]. Wonderfully, things have changed.

The indignant “I/my business has rights” needs to be tempered with an equal dose of “but you (and company) have duties and responsibilities too”. During Obama’s term fines on companies operating in the United States amounted to (on annual average) US $17 billion a year and that money went into public coffers [[14]].

As part of their business risk, banks accept fines for money laundering, [[15]] etc. Medicine manufacturers, doctors and illegal crack dealers are held responsible for the outcomes of their service and resultant customer behaviour. The alcohol industry must join thea club. The right to sell alcohol must be matched with the duty to pick up costs. If you want a life in RSA, agree to get tough on alcohol consequences.

South Africans are the liquor industry’s best advertisement. If booze accounts for 40 percent of violent crime, [[16]] how much more political anger and racial discord does it generate at the very moment the battle for economic equality should be the goal?

If the booze industry is held accountable, the potential loss of jobs will be countered by real economic stimulation … exactly what the legal-drug industry is crowing the country needs. The change will be in the money flow. From court case or settlement into the public pocket, monies recovered will be spent … in South Africa.  After all, communities are the real shareholders of South Africa. Booze company executives earning exorbitant salaries without end user responsibility and guilt free dividends must end.

* Douglas Schorr (edited by Milton Schorr) is a former soldier and district commissioner in then Rhodesia. He is today a committed critic of capitalism and colonial legacies, citing them as the source of poverty in Africa. His first book, The Myth of Smith, is available for sale on Amazon Kindle. Schorr blogs at Follow him on Facebook for regular updates.



[2] Example “… costs associated with harmful alcohol use in South Africa have been estimated at between R245 933 – 280 687 billion” … See

[3] … “silencing alcohol advertising will cost the out-of-home, radio, television and print media more than R1.9 billion a year.” … See

[7] Reuters shows 22 senior people and Google Finance reports a net profit margin of over 9% AFTER paying that bunch … to make legal drugs!

[8] A more involved story that needs written up by an analyst is the relationships developing between life-dissolving and life giving business units in South Africa. It seems to me Remgro for example owns Distel and Mediclinic International (see At monopoly level that makes good strategic business sense. That 4-traders notes the Public Investment Corp. Ltd owns 28% of Distell is sad. 51% would make sense.

[11] Surely if a person deliberately has a drink or three intentional disregard thereafter can be assumed? 

[12] … by C Parry 2014