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Provincial liquor boards need to be strengthened to effectively address alcohol harm

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2022/08/14 Dean Peacock, Zia Wasserman, Dumisani Rebombo, Sidwell Sehoanea

Stories about alcohol-related death have filled our news media with disturbing frequency lately.

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Too many of us now know the names of taverns associated with death: East London’s Enyobeni Tavern, where 21 young people, almost all below the legal drinking age, died, possibly due to methanol poisoning; Nomzamo Tavern in Orlando East, Soweto, where gunmen shot 23 people and killed 15; Katlehong's Mputlane Inn Tavern, the site of a double homicide; and Savannah Park in Mariannhill, KwaZulu-Natal, where seven people were killed at a tuckshop selling alcohol.

These stories, of course, are set against the backdrop of many other alcohol-related fatalities taking place in every community across the country. According to the South African Police Service (SAPS), 2019/2020 crime statistics, the number of confirmed incidents at liquor outlets alone included: 6,298 cases of assault and 11,128 cases of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, 348 cases of rape and 853 murders. Over just the three-month period of January to March this year, liquor outlets were the site of 1,944 cases of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, 59 cases of rape, 156 murders and 198 attempted murders.

Alcohol-related harm is far more pervasive, though, and includes road injuries and fatalities, violence in homes and communities – including gender-based violence (GBV) and alcohol-related disease and illness.

During Covid lockdowns, we learned that alcohol-related injury and death could be dramatically reduced. The media was filled with stories about how decreased access to alcohol was associated with empty casualty wards, dramatically reduced injuries and mortalities, and decreased rates of interpersonal violence, including domestic and sexual violence. According to an unpublished modelling study by Charles Parry and colleagues, during the first period of lockdown, two-thirds of an estimated 35,000 weekly admissions to hospital trauma units around the country disappeared, including 9,000 of which would have been alcohol-related admissions. Yet here we are, just a short while later, inundated once again with stories about alcohol-related fatalities and funerals. It does not have to be this way.

We write this in our capacity as staff and consultants working on an alcohol-related GBV prevention project with Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training (ADAPT) based in Alexandra.

Reams of research over many years show that alcohol abuse is strongly associated with increased perpetration of GBV. A similarly large body of evidence shows us what needs to be done to reduce excessive alcohol consumption. The measures are relatively straightforward and not that difficult to implement. There are two broad strategies.

The first, most widely promoted and much less effective, is promoting behaviour change and healthy drinking amongst current and potential drinkers. The second, contested by the alcohol industry but much more effective, is using a range of common-sense strategies to make alcohol less available, such as: enforcing licencing requirements, reducing operating hours, restricting alcohol outlet density, decreasing the number of outlets in residential areas, increasing the price of alcoholic beverages, enforcing restrictions prohibiting underage drinking, reducing allowable blood alcohol content when driving, and limiting or banning the advertising of alcohol.

Experts working to limit the harms caused by alcohol have shared many useful proposals to increase South Africa’s use of these and other evidence-based policies, including this succinct summary by the Medical Research Council and the Southern Africa Alcohol Policy Alliance in South Africa (SAAPA SA), the leading voices for evidence-based regulations. 

Our research on the extent to which South Africa’s existing regulations governing the sale and consumption of alcohol shows that the regulations laid out in the 2003 Liquor Act are regularly and routinely flouted. For starters, our liquor licensing system is fundamentally broken and the bodies set up to monitor compliance do not have anywhere near the capacity needed to meet their mandates.  Joint research conducted by Sonke Gender Justice (Sonke) and Wits University in Diepsloot in 2014 revealed almost twice as many unlicenced outlets as licenced: 63 licenced and 138 unlicenced. Research conducted in 2019, which ADAPT is tracking closely in Alexandra and Tembisa, reveals a similar lack of adherence to licensing requirements. In Alexandra, there were 57 licenced outlets and 244 unlicenced shebeens. In Tembisa there were 81 licenced and 353 unlicenced outlets.

Unsurprisingly, this research shows that unlicenced outlets are less likely to adhere to safety regulations. As opposed to licenced taverns, shebeens are far less likely to have outside lighting or indoor security measures, and their toilets are less likely to be well lit or to have locks than licenced outlets, a major risk factor for violence against women. In short, the unlicenced outlets were less safe. The ratio of unlicenced to licenced outlets hides a troubling reality. Many licences hanging in taverns and shebeens are expired or fraudulently obtained. Many are both: a photo-copy of someone else’s expired licence.

In 2022 it would be easy to assume that the licensing system would be electronic. Drivers licences, parking tickets, water and electricity bills all are, after all. Not alcohol licensing. In fact, despite the massive impact alcohol has on public health and community safety, there is no available record of which outlets are licenced in seven out of nine provinces, Eastern Cape and Western Cape being the only ones with competent licensing records.

In South Africa, there is a provincial responsibility for setting alcohol regulations. In each province a dedicated provincial liquor board is mandated to oversee the licensing of outlets and their compliance with the provincial regulations. In the work ADAPT does in Gauteng, we have been paying particular attention to the Gauteng liquor boards and especially whether they have the capacity to fulfill their mandates. The answer is currently that they do not. 

Liquor inspectors are expected to check the premises of prospective licence holders for compliance and to make recommendations to the relevant liquor authority on their suitability. They are also supposed to monitor licenced outlets and to respond to complaints from the public in respect of non-compliance by existing outlets. According to a 2019 study, the Gauteng Liquor Board (GLB) had only 27 inspectors responsible for 36,000 licenced liquor outlets, never mind the many thousands more illegal outlets. In the wake of the Enyobeni tragedy, we have learned that Eastern Cape Liquor Board (ECLB) has only 16 inspectors to monitor more than 7,500 outlets, presumably again excluding the many illegal outlets. Sonke’s research on the ECLB also revealed a number of problems inimical to its effective functioning, most glaringly its lack of accessibility: according to Sonke’s 2019 research, the ECLB staff were non-responsive to calls and emails, and there was no information on how members of the public could exercise their right to object to liquor licence applications, nor was there a formal response mechanism to complaints. 

In the case of the Enyobeni tavern tragedy, we know community members had attempted to register complaints about underage drinking at the tavern but heard nothing back from the ECLB. In their media pronouncements, the ECLB mostly blamed others – parents and liquor traders – rather than acknowledging their lack of capacity and enjoining the government to provide them with the resources needed for a proper licensing system and enough inspectors to monitor compliance.

Our own engagements as ADAPT with the Gauteng Liquor Board offer some room for optimism. In Alexandra, ADAPT has recently begun working with the Community Prosecution Forum, a community structure established by the National Prosecuting Authority, to address alcohol harms in our community. The forum has already closed more than 40 unlicensed taverns in Alexandra and surrounding areas. It became clear to forum members that there was a huge need for the forum to partner with the GLB, which we saw as the primary organisation responsible for monitoring liquor traders’ compliance with the law. As a result, a resolution was taken to engage with the GLB to understand more about how it functions and how the forum can strengthen the GLB’s capacity.

ADAPT and the National Prosecution Authority based in Alexandra Magistrate Court held a first meeting with GLB in late July. We were pleased that the GLB accepted an invitation to attend Community Prosecution Forum meetings. We hope very much that this heralds a new era of collaboration between the GLB and community-based civil society organisations like ours.

Many steps are needed to address and reduce alcohol-related harms, including passage of the long stalled Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016 which includes all the evidence-based public health measures mentioned earlier in this piece. Moreover, it is crucial that the provincial liquor authorities are empowered to do their important jobs. Based on our research into the functioning of the GLB, we offer eight recommendations to strengthen its functioning. Additional research is needed on the functioning of other provincial liquor boards. However, we believe these recommendations are relevant for them too. 

  1. The GLB’s budget should be provided by the Gauteng Treasury and not through liquor licence application fees and non-compliance fines as is currently the case. Under the current arrangement, the board has an inherent interest in granting licences and not ensuring timely compliance.
  2. The composition of the GLB should include community representatives and policy experts on addressing alcohol-related harm, as well as a member of SAPS, ideally a designated liquor officer. This representation is key to ensuring that community concerns are brought to the forefront of the board’s decision-making process. Ideally, this would also increase the board’s engagement with the community, including Community Police Forums (CPFs) and SAPS meetings and operations.
  3. To ensure active, informed engagement of the community in the licence application process, the public notification process needs to be amended. It is not sufficient to merely publish the intended liquor licence in the newspaper; rather applicants should actively provide written notice of the application to the SAPS, the relevant CPF, ward council and committee, community-based organisations, and school governing boards in the area, and the GLB should receive confirmation from each body (which would ideally engage with and receive feedback from their constituents, who may be affected by the licensing decision).
  4. While licensing requirements are contained in the relevant legislation and regulations, the GLB ultimately has discretion in its decision to grant/deny a licence application. However, it is unclear what criteria the board uses to make these decisions. This is problematic in terms of ensuring transparency and just administrative action. The GLB should issue licensing guidelines (similar to Sentencing Guidelines that were developed to guide the judiciary). These should include liquor outlet density criteria.
  5. It is critical that the GLB creates an online presence and is more accessible to the public. Not only is this important in terms of providing basic information about the board (including contact information of members of the board, local committees and inspectorate), but by providing information about liquor licence applications and opportunities to object, it fosters greater public participation and accountability.
  6. The GLB must have a regularly updated and accurate database of all the liquor licences in the province. This system should be automated, verifiable, and consistently monitored.
  7. The GLB must increase the number of liquor inspectors, to ensure that compliance inspection targets are met, and that the workload is practically possible. Moreover, this will serve to make inspectors more visible within the community, therefore increasing the GLB’s public accessibility.
  8. Encourage civil society organisations to engage in widespread community focused rights literacy so that community members across the country understand the existing liquor regulations and the mechanisms to demand their enforcement, including how to insist that provincial liquor boards operate transparently, proactively and effectively.

The recent spate of fatalities and murders and the irrefutable association between alcohol abuse and increased rates of domestic and sexual violence make it all the more urgent that the oversight bodies responsible for granting licences and monitoring compliance with liquor regulations actually have the capacity to do their jobs. It is past time that the provincial liquor boards receive the resources needed to fulfill their mandates and keep communities safe from alcohol related harms. DM/MC

Dean Peacock has worked in South Africa and globally to prevent gender based violence and promote health and human rights for 30 years. Dumisani Rebombo is a GBV research and intervention consultant specialising in community mobilisation strategies and the provision of training and technical assistance to CBOs in South Africa.

Sidwell Sehoanea is the Men’s Programme Coordinator at Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training, better known as ADAPT, a pioneering GBV agency based in Alexandra, Johannesburg.

Zia Wasserman is an independent human rights research consultant with a focus on gender based violence.

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