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When one looks up “alcohol in South Africa” an abundance of bad news posts come up about alcohol abuse, traumas and deaths related to alcohol consumption and what is described as South Africa’s toxic relationship with drinks. You would think we have a problem or something, and you would by and large be correct. We are amongst the top consumers in the world of alcohol, with binge drinking and alcoholism identified as serious public health and safety issues. On the other hand, we produce some of the best wines in the world, the Western Cape Winelands are massive domestic and international tourist attractions for the beauty and quality of the produce and traditional beer has been a part of local culture for centuries. Enjoying alcohol responsibly and in moderation is possible.
Stepping back in time, traditional beer brewing has been part of southern Africa’s history for centuries. In isiZulu, isiXhosa and Xitsonga it is known as umqombothi, the Basotha call it mohlaba and in Tshivenda it is mahafhe. Traditional brews have been a part of festivals, spiritual life and social cohesion, playing an important part in honouring our ancestors and building connections between people. The ways in which it is prepared, stored, served and shared have meaning beyond getting a taste of alcohol. The utensils historically used in the making of traditional beer from clay pots, beer beakers, and calabashes to straining bags and skimming spoons were developed over time to include meaning and beauty. Today, umqombothi continues to be used for different ceremonies and festivities but it is also sold to tourists to give them an immersive taste of local culture. Depending on how long it is fermented for, umqombothi generally has a low alcohol content compared to commercially sold beers and is rich in vitamin B.
Staying in the nostalgic frame of mind, winemaking has a shorter history in South Africa but still we have ascended to be amongst the top producers in the world for quality and variety. The first vine is reported to have been planted in the Cape Colony by Jan van Riebeeck, but it was only when the French Huguenots settled in the colony at the end of the 17th century that viticulture and winemaking flourished in this region. Today a tasting tour of the Constantia, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Robertson valleys – to name but a few of the prominent vineyard and cellar areas – is a breath-taking experience enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
Upon a considered view of alcohol as a part of South African social culture and of great economic significance, on the surface of things we could really have a beautiful relationship. But a minor scratch to get deeper will reveal that over-indulgence, addiction, violence and a public health crisis is more indicative of our reality. Many explanations exist for why this is so including our traumatic history that continues to impact life today, the type of legislation we have that makes alcohol very cheap and easy to obtain and a widespread culture of heavy drinking across the board. Perhaps it is time to pause and consider what kind of relationship you want to have with alcohol, especially when you are still young and are only starting or have recently started to drink.
Finishing high school and going off to study at university or college ushers in a significant stage in one’s life journey. You are entering the early stages of individual freedom where more of life’s choices are your own decision. Parents and guardians no longer have direct control over your day-to-day activities, there are no longer teachers overseeing your academic life. It is a time where many people experiment – trying to find what they like, who they are and what they want. It’s an important developmental period where lots of changes occur in our transition from childhood to young adulthood. One of the freedoms many people look forward to is being able to legally purchase and drink alcohol once they turn 18. It is no surprise that as all these freedoms converge, some crazy things happen like consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Sometimes being drunk can be harmless, but it is always risky. The risk of all sorts of danger is imminent from disorderly behaviour, walking while drunk, driving while drunk, lowered inhibitions and diminished reflexes. It can leave one vulnerable to becoming a victim of a crime or limit inhibitions to the point where you cannot make sound judgements and you become the perpetrator of a crime. Even where these high-risk behaviors are not necessarily the result of drunkenness, what is almost always a result is anti-social behaviour that is a nuisance to those around you such as regressive physical capacity where you cannot perform the simplest tasks like using a toilet in the manner appropriate for your age, slurred speech, unpredictable control of your limbs, overly loud speech and soaring emotions. Finding the balance between enjoying a drink or 2 and complete inebriation is a lesson we all need to learn early on – for our safety and dignity!
How then can we learn our own limits and fit in with the social settings we participate in? It’s a difficult balance, considering we have a culture of overindulgence as far as drinking is concerned. We certainly need more considered education around healthy drinking habits as a public service. Binge drinking is a national problem in South Africa and has been for a long time. We have a high mortality and trauma rate related directly to alcohol consumption. Namibia, Eswatini and South Africa are in the top five highest alcohol consumers in the world according to a World Health Organisation report released in 2018. It’s interesting, and concerning, that three of the heaviest drinking nations are direct neighbours. When everyone around you is drinking to get drunk, it’s hard not to follow suit especially if you have not even thought about why you want to drink. It seems like a simple question, but in fact it requires deep contemplation. As an engaged and active citizen, one needs to think of the broader impacts your alcohol consumption has on your environment, immediate communities and the public at large. Considering your own physical and mental health, it is vital to know how alcohol consumption impacts these 2 areas of life. There are long-lasting impacts that can emerge later in life after years of heavy drinking. It is not all bad news though, certain alcoholic beverages consumed in very limited quantities are known to have health benefits such as the polyphenols found in good quality in red wine. As an instrument of social cohesion, such as participating in the Holy Communion wine chalice (halted during the Covid-19 pandemic), having umqombothi at weddings and other festivities, or attending a winelands weekend event are ways that healthy levels of drinking (without driving) can work to build community between people.
As a student and employee, there are additional concerns regarding performance and conduct that could have an impact on your academic or professional life. In your university or college handbook, there will be rules pertaining to conduct and lack of performance due to alcohol (and drug) consumption. Misconduct and poor performance due to substance abuse can lead to exclusion. Many companies have strict policies about alcohol consumption on their premises and impairments linked to mind and behaviour altering substances have disciplinary action consequences. In serious cases, particularly where inebriation poses a health and safety risk or can cause reputational damage to the company’s brand, alcohol consumption or misconduct can lead to termination of one’s employment contract.
Drinking is one of those commonplace activities that actually requires a lot of thinking and planning. Understanding yourself, your limits and your level of responsibility as an adult are all factors to be considered for setting personal boundaries. Once a healthy level of boundaries has been established, you can then enjoy the social aspect of drinking knowing that you have a set point where you will stop while still enjoying the experience.