South Africans have a very complicated relationship with alcohol. We as a nation use alcohol to lubricate the highlights of our lives, so there will be alcohol at weddings, graduations and celebrations.
The vast majority of South Africans identity as Christian in faith, sometimes I feel like our favourite scripture is Ecclesiastes chapter 8, verse 15 “So I commanded the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a man under the sun than to eat, drink and be merry”. In the New Testament one of the more popular miracles by Jesus is the one he performed at a wedding in Cana, turning water into wine. The relationship humans have with alcohol is old and intimate.
When the South African government decided to ban alcohol sales at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they made an announcement beforehand. All over the media there were visuals of South Africans standing in long queues and stocking up on alcohol with almost the same vigour as they were stocking up on pandemic essentials such as food and toilet paper. This massive stocking of alcohol made me question whether there was a need for alcohol rather than a love.
I remember the panic in my girlfriend’s face as she started to run out of the alcohol she had stocked for herself. She started running out of alcohol at the same time as most South Africans and I found this strange because during lockdown alcohol was consumed differently than at the time when the country was open. During lockdown alcohol was not consumed at weddings or parties or any celebratory social gatherings. People who drank did so separately in their own houses. The social isolation didn’t seem to lessen the rate at which alcohol was consumed because soon all over social media there was a cropping up of “take it or leave it” prices for alcohol.
People started buying their favourite brews at extortionate prices. When the favourite brews became unavailable, South Africans would buy any brew at all, any alcohol type.
People who were gin connoisseurs found themselves resorting to brandy, whiskey, wine, anything at all. There was hardly a point where the price got too high. When the bootleg alcohol dealers ran out of brew, people started making their own alcohol in their homes. For a brief shining moment pineapple sales went through the roof and yeast made it to everyone’s shopping list. In almost every South African home there was a drinker who was willing to learn how to brew. At the risk of sounding judgmental, it was at this point that I realised that perhaps alcohol is not so much a want but a need. I started considering that maybe some people use alcohol not only as a social lubricant but as medicine.
In my case I know that alcohol takes care of my anxiety. I’m more relaxed when I’ve had a drink. I know of family members who can only be uninhibited when they’ve had a couple of drinks. Lockdown exposed the dependency that we have on alcohol. It would be amiss of me to propose that the dependency is as a result of gluttony alone for the substance.
A question I began to have was how much did the drinking get used in order to pacify underlying mental issues. South Africa has an overwhelmed healthcare system and this is even more apparent in the field of psychiatry. We are a young democracy that comes from the trauma of colonialism and apartheid. Those oppressive systems wounded us psychologically and post-1994 we were all asked to put the past behind us and move on to a new South Africa while not addressing the very real traumas that the old South Africa inflicted upon the national psyche.
So maybe as a nation we might use alcohol to cope, to keep going, to bandage our emotional wounds. Drinking might bring merriment to most, but to others it may serve to hold us together just long enough to make it to the next day.
Addictions come in all shapes and sizes. Read about one writer’s addiction to love here
Tell us: Do you think people in South African society have a troubled relationship with alcohol? Why or why not?