Until about a month ago most white South African’s impressions of prohibition were limited to movies like Bugsy Malone, the Untouchables and Miller’s Crossing. However, black South Africans who grew up before the Malan Commission report liberated the sale of alcohol to blacks in the early 1960s will have a less romantic view of bootlegging, police corruption and the evils associated with home-brewed concoctions.
Five weeks into a Covid-19 (and politically-) induced prohibition we’re all facing a different reality. Anyone who has been tracking sales of yeast (and has not been naïve enough to assume that isolation has produced a massive spike in home baking) will know that domestic alcohol production is on the rise. It has long been a feature of the South African way of life: the WHO estimates that illicit production accounts for about 25% of the country’s alcohol consumption. Lockdown has done for this home industry what Viagra did for Pfizer.
Prohibitionists always have the best of reasons for their sanctimonious injunctions. There’s no doubt that drink is associated with death and mayhem: so are cars, guns, and a whole host of pharmaceuticals. There is however a vast difference between correct and irresponsible use: The State licenses drivers and imposes prescription controls on medications. A prolonged and abysmal failure to apply the legislative tools at its disposal to minimise the impact of alcohol abuse may have tipped government into using the lockdown to drive a no-alcohol agenda.
Prohibitionism is very popular with the ANC’s voters, partly for historical reasons, partly because of the State’s failure to implement its own regulations. Drink-driving fatalities and domestic violence are rightly cited as direct results of alcohol abuse. However, instead of an effective and incorruptible police force acting to minimise its prevalence, the preference, verbalised by police minister Bheki Cele, appears to have been to impose a more complete ban.
The ANC’s constituency has deeply held views about alcohol, even when they are not linked to religious beliefs. The 1976 riots targeted the West Rand Administration Board’s outlets precisely because alcohol sales funded the apartheid structures and was seen to be an instrument of repression. There was also the first-hand experience of those whose parents and spouses over-indulged, whether to drown out the humiliations to which they had been subjected, or simply to escape the drudgery of everyday life.
But prohibition in its present form is not going to make this go away: in fact it may make matters worse. The most damaging consequences of Prohibition in the United States arose from the criminalisation of alcohol. Perfectly law-abiding citizens, denied access to a drink, openly participated in the illegal market. Women who would never have been seen in a pub before Prohibition happily frequented the speakeasies. The number of outlets trading in illicit alcohol vastly exceeded the number of licensed bars from before the ban came into effect. Respect for the law was another casualty: when bootlegging, home-brewing and widespread consumption of illicit alcohol is the norm, even the most law-abiding citizens redefine for themselves what constitutes criminal conduct.
There were other, more tangible, casualties: deaths from bootlegged liquor sky-rocketed. Edward Behr estimates that by 1927 (roughly halfway into the era) there had been 50000 deaths. In 1930 the Prohibition Bureau reported that in a single small county in Kansas alone there had been 15000. Policing Prohibition cost millions of dollars for very little benefit. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia famously said that to enforce Prohibition in New York would require disbanding the existing force, employing 250000 new officers and another 250000 to supervise them. The repeal of the Volstead Act produced an immediate benefit to the Depression-hit US economy of around 2% of GDP.
Prohibitionists also fail to take account of the health benefits of moderate consumption. Teetotallers, on average, have shorter lives than those who drink. Surely in this time of plague the State should be doing everything in its power to promote products which could contribute to extended life expectancy?