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South Africa’s long love-hate affair with alcohol

Here is a brief, witty, poignant history of binge-drinking in our crying and hungover country – back in public eye after several recent tavern tragedies.

The spate of recent tavern tragedies has us once again questioning our relationship with alcohol. Sadly, the dependency goes back centuries and there have been many attempts to curb its influence.  

In the past month at least 40 people – the youngest of whom was only 13 – have died in South African taverns. Many commentators, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, have focused on the scourge of underage drinking. This should come as no surprise.

In Ramaphosa’s maiden State of the Nation speech on 16 February 2018 he evoked Hugh Masekela’s song “Thuma Mina”, which envisaged conquering the scourge on alcoholism in our society. What’s more, many in the ANC including Sol Plaatje and Albert Luthuli abstained from drinking. Plaatje was in fact at the centre of the temperance movement.  

Here follows a brief history of binge-drinking in our crying and babbalased country.

Dop it like it’s hot 

No sooner had Jan van Riebeeck pitched up at the Cape in 1652 than he started dishing out the booze to local inhabitants as “an incentive to work, attend church and learn Dutch”. When the first slaves were imported about decade later, the system was formalised with slaves being kept in their masters’ yokes via 200ml dops of wine every couple of hours.

The dop system lasted 300 years – but even after it was banned in 1961, many Cape farmers continued to “gift” their labourers wine. Besides, by that stage the problem had become a generational one. A 1998 study found that as many as 87% of farm workers could be classified as problem drinkers.

When love and hate collide

Paul Kruger’s Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek had a hot-and-cold relationship with the hard stuff. The ZAR’s very first factory was an alcohol distillery which – much to the joy of teetotal Oom Paul – turned farmers’ excess grain into cheap and nasty hard tack from 1881 onwards.

Sales got a serious boost with the discovery of gold in 1886, as the number of licensed canteens (the “taverns” of their day) increased fourfold in four years. At first, the money-grabbing mine bosses promoted booze because miners who pissed their wages against a wall were able to return home less frequently and thus toiled longer below ground.

The Randlords went swiftly off the idea when excess drinking among the labour force started to eat into their profits. By the 1890s it’s estimated that a quarter of the black labour force was “disabled by drink” on any given day.

Charles van Onselen writes that it was “a common thing to find ‘boys’ lying dead in the veld from exposure and the effects of the vile liquids sold them by unscrupulous dealers”.

One hundred and thirty years later the parents of the victims of the Enyobeni tragedy are coming to terms with the fact that similarly vile liquids probably killed their kids.

The suip of Good Hope

As we found out while writing Spoilt Ballots, our book about how democracy has repeatedly been twisted and misconstrued in Mzansi, booze has a strange and inconsistent history in the Cape.

Much like the gold mining bosses on the Witwatersrand, Cecil Rhodes and his Kimberley cronies passed a law that banned alcohol from the dehumanising compounds where “native” labourers were forced to live. Rhodes had no interest in the wellbeing of these men – he just wanted to maximise profits.

James Rose Innes and John Tengo Jabavu’s opposition to liquor, on the other hand, came from an entirely different place: they wanted to put a stop to the ill that alcohol was causing those unused to hard tack. After many years of trying, they managed to pass what would become known as the “Innes Liquor Act” through the Cape Parliament in 1898.

This restricted black people below a certain standard of education from being able to buy alcohol. The law was met with opprobrium by the various brandy and wine producers within the Western Cape but was widely supported by the black elites of the time.

Sol Plaatje, one of the founders of the ANC, was part of a temperance movement that aimed at stopping the damage alcohol did in black communities. He always advocated that alcohol should not be sold to his people. Plaatje had not only seen its devastating effect on the mines in Kimberley but had also worked for successive Tswana chiefs in the then-Mafeking who had succumbed to alcoholism.

The “white man’s liquor” was seen by liberal whites and blacks alike to have caused untold damage in black communities.

Maanskyn under the apartheid sonskyn

The Liquor Act of 1928 banned the sale of “European liquor” to “non-Europeans” across South Africa. The act was in many ways simply a method of martial control. Police were, as a result, able to inspect any premises in South Africa on the mere suspicion that it might house a supply of “European liquor” and arrest any black person on the slightest suspicion of looking even a tiny bit gesuip.

Things got even better (if you were in charge) with the Liquor Amendment Act of 1961, which permitted wine and spirits to be sold to black people through government-owned bottle stores. While the Nats claimed they did this to eliminate the illicit sale of liquor in the townships, they were – of course – mainly in it for the money.

The 1960s was a time of progressively harsher racial laws being enacted. Many people of colour seem to have found some escape from the increased police brutality in what Paul la Hausse terms, the “shiny new bottle which the government had given them”.

Something that is rarely mentioned about the 1976 Soweto Uprising is its links to alcohol.

The Soweto Students’ Representative Council issued a statement saying “we can no longer tolerate seeing our fathers’ pay packets emptied on drink”. As a result, government-owned beer halls and bottle stores were attacked and burnt to the ground. The uprising saw the government lose a whopping R3-million (R130-million in today’s money) in liquor sales on the West Rand.

Where to now?

While a total booze ban is an unrealistic (and unconstitutional) goal we should not forget that ICU admissions at hospitals for drunk driving and knife and gun violence plummeted during the Covid booze bans. More restrictive laws might be an option, but they will need to be enforced if they are to have any effect.

What could also work is: better education, a national alcohol awareness drive and, perhaps most important of all, the government could start with enforcing the laws that already exist. Clamping down on underage drinking, enforcing liquor licensing laws and rooting out deadly moonshine are three options available to them.

Instead, reeling under the influence of this government’s inability to solve our social ills, we are now waking to a hangover that has a devastating human cost.

Source:, written by Nick Dall and Matthew Blackman

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