A version of this article has been featured on platforms such as Daily Maverick.
The ir/rationality with which the country carries out transformation is the nexus of social, political and economic events. When we neglect this, the result is a “Million Seats on the Streets” campaign — the biggest protest by the South African restaurant in history, the precursor of protest from other industries and the “whitest” protest since anti-Zuma campaigns.
These campaigns raise questions about how business and white people select their causes, underscoring the rift between “white” and “black” concerns at the cost of recognising their common ground. The waters of poverty have been rising with the first affected being black people, and a business management consultant tracking these dynamics made this prediction: “Every South African industry’s #FeesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter moment is coming.”
Badly implemented transformation is at the heart of why alcohol sales were suspended and banned at all: our political leaders’ justification for the prohibition was the connection between alcohol sales and the fill rate of hospital beds. Who questions those leaders regarding the economic inequality around the alcohol consumption of different demographic groups, or the role those circumstances play in pushing alcohol users closer to hospital beds? Narrow-Based Black Economic Empowerment has exacerbated black people’s living conditions, bottlenecking hospitals’ capacities. This has forced us to implement an economically hostile lockdown to work around the impact of funds’ misappropriation eroding infrastructure and medical facility development, to say nothing of people’s quality of life. Without that quality, there are more immunocompromised people than would have been the case and consequently, the curve to be flattened is leagues steeper than manageable.
That connects to this dilemma: if we restrict the freedoms of “responsible” and “irresponsible” drinkers, it’ll backfire because respect for the necessity of the rule of law will be eroded in both. And neither consumer’s taxes will be collected. South Africa becomes a place where if anyone starts a business, it’s at the mercy of officials who take tax money when it suits them and use that business as a scapegoat the next day. This is just one example of what happens in one economic sector.
Political corruption is an effect of the “big man” mentality that’s hijacked transformation legislation, and it’s closely related to toxic masculinity. Is it possible that alcohol’s role in reckless behaviour and gender-based violence (GBV) has been stretched to also cover the role of a patriarchal toxic masculinity embodied in politicians who would rather 800,000 jobs be lost (in the formal restaurant industry alone!) than admit they’ve undermined the rule of law — than admit their example has encouraged disdain for the law, a dearth of consequences for drinking irresponsibly and the unnatural conjoining of responsible and irresponsible drinkers by lawmakers?
We live in a society that says, “She was drunk when that guy accosted her, so she’s not exactly innocent”, in the same breath that it says, “Be gentler on him: he was drunk when he accosted her”. Suspending alcohol sales allows us to externalise the root of GBV as something “out there”, but that’s allowing politicians who embody toxic masculinity to use it as a fig leaf at the expense of those who make a living off of it. This exercise of “power-over” by politicians over citizens mirrors the misogynist tendency of shifting blame from men to women.
A better solution may be genuine transformation and inclusive economic growth, which would give more of the voting public a direct stake in the precision of the legislative instruments government officials use to enforce the rule of the law. This precision needs to be applied to the question, “Do we want to shut down restaurants in affluent areas, or create more tax-paying restaurants where the formal sector currently doesn’t exist?” because solving the high hospital-bed fill rate by shutting down industries whose tax revenue pays for those hospital beds is absurd short-term gain for long-term pain.
Novel as the Coronavirus is, it’s not a new variable that’s pushed international politics’ dominoes; rather, it’s an effect of those dominoes falling. Obama predicted it years ago, and female leaders (New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, Finland, Iceland and Norway) have slowed its spread down without totally ending booze sales. This suggests countries that are legitimately concerned about the effect of alcohol changed their laws as an expression of that conviction before the pandemic exacerbated dynamics that had always been at play. Instead of treating our politicians like they’ve always had our best interests at heart, let’s take Women’s Month to ask why half our presidents haven’t been women when half of us are. Then we’ll understand why they exercise “power over” instead of “power alongside”: having internalised the vertical power relations normalised by colonisation and apartheid, they have used the policy instruments written to flatten those to instead steepen them.
Alcohol releases people’s inhibitions to let them fully express whatever unprocessed traumas they’re carrying around; that’s why it sparks more violence in our country (with its untransformed historical legacy of violence) than any other. Men may not be patriarchy’s biggest victims, but they perpetrate its violence because they’re always “initiated” into it as its first victims. Alcohol abuse can be a symptom and aggravator of that toxicity, but when we treat it as its cause it costs more in the long run than it would cost us to debundle the variables at play to save lives and livelihoods (and treat alcohol abuse as a medical illness linked to sociological, economic and even political issues). Instead of using policy instruments like B-BBEE to address the effects of patriarchy and racism, politically-connected black men — those we address as “baba”, our father figures — instead used those policy instruments to bring us to a place where we must overlook the incredible hypocrisy of putting moralitocracy in the place of Constitutional democracy. Thousands of citizens lose their jobs for the sin of selling a substance whose container label describes it accurately to the decimal percentage, all so we may salvage the jobs of politicians who can’t keep up with the zeroes at the end of the figures they squander. To add insult to injury, it is the former who pays the salary of the latter.
B-BBEE was written to economically address structural violence against black women. Such was the neglect around it that for nine years, its implementation was left to a man whose first major scandal involved violence against a black woman. Now, segments of the economy can’t function because the politicians who were enriched by his abuse of B-BBEE are suddenly concerned about the link between alcohol and GBV.
The perception around Minister Bheki Cele, in particular, makes it easy for many to interpret his words that GBV victims “don’t die on the first attempt” as meaning that’s the reason GBV isn’t prioritised as much as alcohol. His concern on substance abuse is seen as sincere to the extent that it lets him maintain control by prescribing a solution that protects a sanctimonious image of himself. This Women’s Month should be used to publicly recognise that even in instances where GBV isn’t the outcome, drunk-driving and fighting stem from the toxic masculinity that produces racism, sexism, ethnicism and every other ism leading to GBV as well as the misuse of legislation to the detriment (and through the abuse) of the inclusive economic growth mandate.
The abuse of B-BBEE and the abuse of lockdown powers have been the MO of the same political leaders, have the same economic consequences and run at the same nexus.
Contact us today to help your business leverage B-BBEE to tell a better story about your organisation’s role in society. Our organisation can help you use transformation legislation to lobby, negotiate, and advocate for your organisation and your industry.