Scores of people lined up outside liquor stores in South Africa’s township of Soweto on Monday, waiting to stock up on drinks after a nine-week ban on alcohol sales as part of a strict coronavirus lockdown.
Buying booze was prohibited when Africa’s most industrialised economy went into lockdown on March 27.
The ban — meant to ease pressure on emergency wards and prevent a feared spike in domestic violence — was lifted for home consumption on Monday as South Africa moved down to level 3 of its five-tier shutdown.
The mood was festive in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where customers carrying crates of empty beer bottles waited out the meandering lines, some stationed in their cars, blasting loud music from their stereos.
“We are overwhelmed, over the moon, so excited,” said queuing customer Bongani Khumalo.
“This place is jamming,” he exclaimed, adding that celebrations were expected throughout the township.
“I’m here to buy my beloved beer,” said Anele Mapoma, 31.
“It has been a while since I had a taste of that foam and burping (so) I am here so early to satisfy my habit.”
Another Soweto resident admitted she had been looking forward to “this day for an entire month”.
“I had to wake up super early to be here so I’m all good now,” said the unnamed 24-year-old as he stood outside a liquor store in the suburb of Pimville.
-‘Traumatising’ black market-
As shop doors opened at 9:00 am, customers queueing in face masks were ordered to keep a safe distance from one another and allowed entry one small group at a time.
Security guards took their temperature at the door and anyone with a fever was turned away.
South Africans still harboured mixed feelings about the controversial booze ban, which caused black market sales to flourish.
“That one was very traumatising whereby people had to get liquor illegally, they raised prices so high,” said Khumalo.
“It’s month’s end, people got paid and others are excited to go back to work, I think people have every reason to celebrate.”
But for 22-year-old Asenathi Faleni, a self-confessed “serious drinker”, the government’s decision to shutter the alcohol market was a brilliant idea.
“The virus would have spread much more because as drinkers we don’t really listen once we’re drunk,” Faleni said.
“We just want to be out and about and around people and at taverns, and the taverns get full.”
Under level 3 all but high-risk sectors of the economy will be allowed to reopen, as will schools and places of worship.
An ongoing ban on cigarette sales remains a thorny issue, however, with British American Tobacco South Africa launching legal proceedings against the government last week.
– Balancing Act –
Government’s ban on alcohol has faced resistance from the onset with businesses bemoaning the mushrooming of illegal markets.
The country ranks 30th in the world in terms of per capita alcohol consumption, according to 2010 figures by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
At the beginning of the lockdown, the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence had also warned that a sudden cut in supply of alcohol causes physical and mental problems.
But Police Minister Bheki Cele insisted the move was astute, even attributing the decline in crimes such as murder and hijacking to the ban.
“I wish (the) alcohol ban could be extended beyond lockdown,” Cele said.
The country has recorded more than 32,600 infections so far, including 683 deaths.
Health experts have predicted that South Africa’s coronavirus outbreak will peak between July and November, causing at least 40,000 deaths.