Business Day column: Is prohibition Aaron Motsoaledi’s end game?

IF LAST week’s Liquor Amendment Bill is anything to go by, thinking about liquor makes some politicians and bureaucrats more intoxicated than drinking it.

They become incoherent megalomaniacs with delusional conceptions of causality. They think billboards advertising liquor on straight roads are better than ones near corners (as opposed to an intersections); that they know when 20-year-olds (as opposed to 21-year-olds) listen to radios; that people old enough to be the president are too young for wine with meals; that people who provide liquor should be vicariously liable for crimes unrelated to liquor; and that "the National Liquor Regulator must the minister may delegate powers …" (sic) is English.

One of the nuttiest provisions reads: "The … distributor who distribute(s) to a retailer who does not have a licence is liable for death of any natural person."

In their intoxicated stupor, they forget what they were told a few months ago. The bill repeats manifestly crazy provisions in last year’s Liquor Policy, such as the prohibition of liquor premises within 500m of residential areas or transport facilities. Does anyone know of premises zoned for business purposes, specifically for liquor, more than half a kilometre from a residential area or transport facility?

The bill in effect bans liquor in most, if not all, shopping centres, hotels and restaurants. It precludes liquor in or near airports, bus stops, taxi ranks, train stations and ports. In case someone thinks liquor will be allowed at country clubs or sports clubs, that too will be banned.

How about Sun City? No, there are staff residences. Cape Town’s Waterfront? No, it has a harbour. Resorts include, or are near, road transport facilities, have —or are surrounded by — residences, and provide recreation. Famous wine routes are, by definition, verboten. They are served by tourism transport facilities, and have recreational areas, staff residences and nearby bus stops or stations.

Liquor enterprises will also have to be far from schools, places of worship, public institutions, rehabilitation or treatment centres, intersections and any other "like amenity", whatever all that means.

Superficially, that is coherent even if nuts, but if you pause long enough to use another synapse, you will realise that places of worship include chapels at wedding venues and prayer rooms in multistory buildings. Public institutions include post offices and clinics in shopping centres. Schools include small public, private, church and community institutions, and other schools almost everywhere. Consider yourself blessed in the unlikely event that you know somewhere where it will be lawful to produce, store, distribute or sell liquor.

During its early years, the ANC was sophisticated, respectful and tolerant. What happened? Its 1997 Liquor Policy and 2003 Liquor Act insightfully described the obnoxious nature of apartheid liquor law. It proclaimed emancipation, dignity and respect for South Africans.

An integral part of dismantling apartheid was easy entry into the liquor industry and easy access to liquor for liberated adults. It celebrated the decline in liquor-related crime and drunkenness, and the blossoming of thousands of decriminalised outlets.

Now it, at the behest of a single authoritarian minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, it is willing to return us to the past. Is prohibition his end game? The lesson it should learn from its own analysis and success is that the process it started should be completing. It should bury, not resurrect, remnants of apartheid’s liquor legacy.

It wants to raise the legal drinking age from 18 years to 21 years, despite no evidence of benefits. On the contrary, local and foreign experience suggests the measure will backfire. Virtually none of the problems they cite during those three years can be attributed to alcohol.

Since the Constitutional Court ruled at late President Nelson Mandela’s behest that liquor licensing was an exclusive provincial competence, the bill is, in any event, unconstitutional.

Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation

This article was first published in Business Day on 5 October 2016

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