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OP-ED: Justifications for SA’s draft liquor bill are hard to swallow

South Africa’s draft liquor bill seeks to impose maximum discomfort on the liquor industry seemingly on the grounds that since liquor is evil, any attack on its producers and distributors is morally justifiable. Few, if any, of the proposals are practical, writes Michael Fridjohn, well-known wine commentator.

…. the draft liquor bill – published in May and offered for comment until mid-August – comes to us courtesy of unashamedly Stalinist Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies. There’s something indisputable puritanical about communism (the moral disapproval of excess, the high-ground of deprivation). You can tell that the minister would prefer that the idea of indulgence be removed from the conceptual lexicon – at least until everyone can indulge equally), so he’s happy to be cast in the role of killjoy – and to turn his department into a kind of vice squad.

Its campaign against the liquor industry is not directed at substance abuse: there are enough laws in place to deal with that. There isn’t the competence or the political will. What Davies and Co would really like to see is full-on prohibition, failing which imposing maximum discomfort on the sector offers a reasonable second best. It’s probable that in an honest moment, those responsible for the draft liquor bill might actually acknowledge this – though they would argue that since liquor is evil, any attack on its producers and distributors is morally justifiable.

Certainly the clauses which litter the so-called discussion document are laced with a sense of moral propriety. Instead of seeing the issues the bill tries to address as a failure of policing, the Department of Trade and Industry hopes more horse-hair and flagellation will address the problems.

It wants the drinking age raised to 21, it wants licences only for premises at least 500m away from schools, places of worship, recreation, rehabilitation centres and transport hubs. It aims to enforce broad-based black economic empowerment (BBBEE) compliance for existing licences and new applications (implying a redemptive connection between the sin of supplying alcohol and the virtue of sharing the profits with the previously disadvantaged).

Few, if any, of the proposals are practical. If producers and distributors of alcohol can be held liable for the abuse of their product, then the agricultural sector must answer for the chronically obese and petrol companies for the damage caused by Molotov cocktails.

The BBBEE clause, which comes with a threat to revoke existing licences, is an undisguised land grab. The Constitutional Court recently ruled that a liquor licence constitutes property under section 25 of the Constitution. Depriving a successful trader of the fruits of his labour is exactly the kind of strategy that will do wonders for foreign investment in South Africa.

The 500m rule is plainly ridiculous: it’s difficult to imagine anywhere in Johannesburg or Sandton (outside an industrial area) which is at least 500m away from schools, places of worship or recreation, residential areas or a public transport link. Norman Goodfellows is near the Wanderers Club, the OR Tambo Duty Free is in the midst of a transport hub, the Hyatt hotel is next to the Gautrain station.

If the bill becomes law and the two-year phasing-in period is rigorously applied, you’d have to go to the kind of illegal shebeen the Act hopes to see eliminated just to buy a bottle of beer.

We think we inhabit a secular state, where the rights of one group should not be allowed to over-rule the rights of others. People who live in close proximity to a church or place of worship are expected to tolerate the noise, disruption, and the comings and goings of the congregants – especially on weekends. There is no reciprocal tolerance when it comes to pubs and sports clubs.

Religious services disrupt neighbourhoods (often at the strangest hours) – so do bars and restaurants. If you don’t like it (the pub or the church) don’t buy property in the neighbourhood. When it comes to new licences, it’s not an unreasonable expectation to seek the consent of those whose immediate environment may be affected (by a church or a liquor outlet). Present legislation provides for this when it comes to new licence applications, though not, as far as I know, when it comes to siting new churches, mosques and synagogues. In fact, the draft law intends outlawing established – and legally licensed – businesses.

Davies may be doctrinaire, but he’s not stupid. He must know that, if enacted, most of what he is proposing would be struck down by the courts. He doesn’t mind wasting the state’s resources (not to mention those of the private sector) going through the motions so he can show his prohibitionist constituency that he has its interests at heart.

No doubt this is also what underlies the proposal to raise the minimum legal drinking age to 21. Even granny-nanny Australia has come to see the impracticality of this threshold and has progressively lowered the drinking age to 18 in all states. We know that an uncomfortably high number of under-18s are already obtaining liquor. Raising the drinking age to 21 will simply force more of them to buy (and binge-drink) liquor illegally. Alternatively it will drive them towards suppliers of potentially more dangerous mind-altering substances…..

The Daily Maverick: Read the full article

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