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South African government laments alcohol-related deaths

South African government officials have lamented the rise in alcohol-related road incidents following the lifting of a controversial ban on wine, beer and spirits sales.

Spokesperson Phumla Williams said the government’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 is being “dampened by reports of alcohol abuse, recklessness and terrible vehicle crashes and fatalities on our roads.”

The announcement came after a spate of alcohol-related road accidents were recorded over the weekend. Three officers from the Tshwane metro police department (TMPD) were killed in a head-on collision with a suspected drunk driver on Sunday.

Two Gauteng police officers were also arrested for allegedly driving under the influence over the weekend, the local police office said on Monday (24 August).

According to local police, 740 suspects, including two officers, have so far been arrested for drinking and driving.

South Africa’s controversial alcohol ban was lifted for a second time on 17 August, after months of confusion in the country’s wine, beer and spirits sector.

Williams said that the the recent rise of fatal accidents following the reopening of liquor sales is “a cause for concern”.

“It cannot be acceptable that three Tshwane Metro Police Department (TMPD) officers are among the people who died in alcohol-related vehicle accidents that occurred in Gauteng this past weekend. Government sends its condolences to the families and loved ones of the three officers who died in such a tragic manner.”

She went on to call on the country’s liquor industry to work with the government to help curb problem drinking.

In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and free up hospital beds, President Cyril Ramaphosa placed a blanket ban on alcohol sales when South Africa went into lockdown on 26 March. Since then, the ban has been lifted and reinstated a number of times. A ban on exports was lifted on 7 April only to be imposed again on 16 April, then re-allowed once more on 1 May.

On 26 May, the government announced that retailers could open again and recommence the sale of alcohol for at-home consumption, but the government said shortly afterwards that this caused a spike in alcohol related harm and injury, which was placing a burden on hospitals at a time when the country seemed to be heading towards peak infections. Sales were banned for a second time on 12 July.

It has been reported that during the nine-week lockdown, the South African alcohol industry has lost R18 billion in revenue (£852.8 million) and R3.4 billion (£142.1m) in excise tax. The loss of excise tax is a direct result of increasing sales of illegal alcohol products which don’t pay taxes.

It was originally thought the ban would stay in place until September, but it was lifted again last week due to mounting pressure from  the wine and hospitality sector and from regional governments, particularly in the Western Cape. 

During a press conference on Monday, transport minister Fikile Mbalula said: “People are out of control in terms of alcohol.”

“We must now put our heads together…while there is Covid we must review our laws in terms of alcohol access.”

Mbalula said that South Africa had already struggled with alcohol-related crime long before the coronavirus pandemic swept through the country, and while lockdown “brought some control, we now know what alcohol can do and does to our society, it has been going on, and on, and on, and we’ve got to somehow contain that.”


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