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Booze ban: it’s Whitey Basson vs Dlamini Zuma

The alcohol industry has some big guns in its arsenal as it gears up for a war with Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma — but its star witness in the case which begins on August 18 will surely be the country’s highest rated retailer: former Shoprite CEO Whitey Basson.

From 1971, Basson made his name as Renier van Rooyen’s finance director at Pep stores. But things really took off in 1979, when he persuaded Van Rooyen to buy an eight-store, family-owned grocery chain in the Western Cape for R1.9m.

Basson ended up turning that family-owned business into Africa’s largest food retailer. When he retired in December 2016, more than 35-million shoppers were filing through its doors every year, helping Shoprite record R141bn in sales.

Today, Basson lives on the Klein DasBosch wine estate on the banks of the Blaauwklippen River in Stellenbosch. His chief winemaker is Jan Boland Coetzee, a man who played six rugby Tests for the Springboks between 1974 and 1976.

Last Friday, Basson filed a four-page statement and an affidavit supporting the legal action by nonprofit the Southern African Agri Initiative, in which he systematically dismantles the basis for Dlamini Zuma’s alcohol ban. “I know of very few, if any, restaurants or wine farmers that can survive under the current lockdown conditions, as it is quite frankly just not profitable for a restaurateur to stay open without the possibility of selling wine,” he says.

His view, he says, is informed by his experience “as an economist over the past four decades”, “as an employer of thousands of workers in this country” over those years, and as an “entrepreneur in both the wine producing and restaurant industries”.

Basson says this experience means he is “very sensitive about poverty and the saving of jobs, having built up a company that employed 140,000 people”.

It’s why, he says, the ban on selling — either on wine farms, online or in supermarkets — is so completely baffling.

“There is no plausible reason why these methods would lead to an increase in Covid-19 infections or the overburdening of the health system. I believe that [Dlamini Zuma] did not consider these means properly, or at all,” he says.

Basson stresses that saving lives should be the government’s main goal — it’s just that the wine ban does nothing to advance that cause.

It’s clear that the rank hypocrisy of the lockdown rules rankles with Basson. After all, if your goal is to reduce infections, no rational politician could square that with allowing taxis to go back to 100% loading.

He says: “It is far safer to allow restaurants and supermarkets to sell wine than failing to act against people who disobey the regulations which prescribe the wearing of masks and the maintenance of social distancing, as I observe every day at ground level.”

Rather than reducing Covid-19 infections, the ban could have a number of knock-on consequences which the government probably doesn’t even realise, he says.

For a start, says Basson, it will lead to the “irrevocable demise of the majority of wine farms and licensed restaurants”, which will have a “chilling effect on entrepreneurial start-ups”. Job losses will follow, which “has the ominous potential of snowballing into starvation for thousands of unemployed workers and their families, concomitant social unrest and irreversible damage [for] the economy”.

If it sounds too hysterical, it isn’t. The court papers filed by estates like Rust en Vrede and Fairview show they’ve already had to axe more than half their staff.

Wine estates have been losing about R300m per week due to the ban, while 120,000 jobs in the wider alcohol industry are at stake. Restaurants are little better off: a third have already closed, erasing jobs for many of the 800,000 people who worked in the industry…..

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