Jokes aside, state of our nation's defined by booze

Young people had a strong presence in long queues for liquor on Monday. / ESA ALEXANDER
Young people had a strong presence in long queues for liquor on Monday. / ESA ALEXANDER

A week ago when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that in level 3 of lockdown the sale of alcohol would be permitted, I was extremely disturbed.

I believed then, as I still do now, that this move was not properly thought through. It is the same opinion I hold about the re-opening of religious institutions, which I deem extremely reckless.

I was hoping that the government would backtrack on this decision like it did with the sale of tobacco. Unfortunately, this was not to be and on Monday the sale of alcohol resumed.

My greatest fears about the decision to permit alcohol sales was realised within hours of liquor stores opening.

Men and women across SA stood in queues in blistering cold waiting for an opportunity to get their hands on beers and spirits which they had been buying for exorbitant prices for two months. The banning of alcohol under levels 4 and 5 did not stop alcohol consumption, it sent the industry underground. This led to exorbitant prices and home brews.

Throughout the day, news channels kept us updated about the long queues and related developments. I was concerned by seeing young people in those long queues.

The face of alcohol consumption in our country is young, and it is also working class.

This is deeply concerning because it demonstrates the great extent to which the youth is reliant on alcohol in a country where that same demographic is largely unemployed and on the receiving end of poverty and structural inequalities.

A few years ago while doing my honours in geography, I did an assignment on substance abuse in small towns in Eastern Cape. Some of the findings in that assignment were that there is a proportional relationship between substance abuse and poverty.

The greater the levels of poverty and unemployment in communities, the higher the consumption of alcohol and use of drugs. In small towns such as Riebeeck East, our research discovered that children as young as 12 are regular drinkers. It was debilitating.

Equally debilitating was the fact that in many of these communities, a disturbing practice is normalised. Tavern owners enter into agreements with recipients of social grants to give them an advance of alcohol and be paid at the end of the month when grants are received.

Some of these owners go as far as keeping the Sassa cards of clients, withdrawing the money owed to them before the card could go buy children's essential basic needs, which is meant to buy. The result is that children in these communities are neglected, setting parameters for them to become alcoholics too.

The question that we must ask ourselves, and it is an important question, is why does the youth of our country drink so heavily?

The reality of the situation is that this consumption of alcohol is largely an escape from the nervous conditions that define the lives of millions of our people.

The poor drink to escape the realities of poverty. Those young men and women were standing in those long queues because they didn't have jobs to go to and classes to attend. They are youth whose dreams have been deferred and who, to cope, have turned to the bottle.

But it's not just the poor who drink to escape; the middle class too drinks for escape. Several studies have been conducted across the world, including one recently by the British Medical Association, detailing the growing rates of alcoholism among professionals.

The research argues that professionals are overwhelmed, indebted and stressed by their work environments and family responsibilities, hence they turn to the bottle. One can only imagine how much worse this is for young black professionals who must navigate all this and racism in the workplace.

As we share and laugh at videos of people dancing and singing outside liquor stores, we must pause to reflect on what the scenes tell us about the state of our nation.

We will find that the reality is not as funny as those videos.

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