Why do ZA Supermarkets have barmy booze bans?

Why can you buy a bottle of wine in a South African supermarket, but not a bottle of whisky, or port, or sherry – or a beer, for that matter? ZA Confidential sought the views of some of our experts….

Expert Comment:

Dawie Roodt from the Efficient Group:

I am a child. At least that is what my government thinks. Unlike other governments that allow me to buy my salami and vodka at the same place, my government has decided that I am not allowed to do so. I have to get my food and booze at different outlets. In fact, I am not even allowed to grab a beer at an informal stall next to the road – well not officially. Unofficially I can get just about anything anywhere but should I get caught my property will be confiscated and the poor entrepreneur could end up getting a criminal record, because he needs a licence. Those kleptocrats that decided that I am not allowed to buy all my groceries at the same place will probably say that they are protecting me. Protecting me from what is not entirely clear, but the answer is probably that they want to protect me from myself. And I also have to pay for all this protection; salaries of kleptocrats, cost of red tape and the extra petrol to go from food shop to booze shop. All this protection is bankrupting me.

Mike Ratcliffe from Warwick and Vilafonte Wine Estates:

Did you also know that it is impossible to buy a bottle of wine with more than 14% alcohol in a ZA supermarket? You can purchase these wines in any other wine store, but not in a supermarket. Some of the top wines in the country have been legally de-listed from supermarkets as a result of this ludicrous legislation. I would suggest that a lot of wines are (possibly?) re-labelled to reflect a lower alcohol to bypass this bureaucratic nonsense – leaving even more questions unanswered. So, the broader thesis is that restrictive (read: Neo-Prohibitionist) liquor legislation is somehow designed to appease an electorate that are apparently anti-alcohol as a result of the broad alcohol abuse in our ZA society. The real issue that should be resolved is enforcement of the existing alcohol laws by a toothless SAP. The South African public is not well served by the current South African liquor legislation.

Leon Louw from the Free Market Foundation:

Having travelled to around 100 countries (half of all countries) and having a special interest in the role of government, I’ve been struck by the immense diversity of regulations. It is commonly observed that there is no pure free market, socialism, fascism, communism or any other “ism”, but there is also no pure mix, no “mixed economy” or “middle road” for instance. The world is a chaotic admixture of regulations. Theoretically, differences are readily identifiable by desk research, but in-situ experience and travel reveal stuff that is simply not apparent from remote observation. The problem is twofold: there is enormous inconsistency of enforcement. One of the most conspicuous examples (by virtue of its visibility) is prostitution. In some places where it is theoretically banned, it plainly visible either everywhere (Senegal) or curiously localised (SA). In others where it is lawful (such as some Swiss cantons) it is discrete and scarcely visible. What this global diversity suggests is that there is no coherent or logical regulatory order or paradigm; no two people for a wholly or partially regulated society agree on the mix. Not only does the mix vary, but enforcement varies even more. Extreme variations in liquor policy and policing are an example. In some central European countries, there is no regulation and/or no enforcement; liquor is sold everywhere freely, even from suburban gardens over fences to passer-by. Saudi Arabia is an example of a country with total and effective prohibition. What characterizes countries where liquor has some or other dedicated/discriminatory regulation -i.e. most countries? The degree to which liquor is regulated is the degree to which there is (at least in that context) a nanny state – that is a government arrogant enough to think it knows better than its citizens what is good for them. The anomaly or contradiction of nanny state regulation is that people considered clever enough to vote for the government are considered too stupid to run their own lives. Liquor regulation (where it is found to a significant degree) takes various forms – such as trading hours, a distinction between “on” and “off” (site) consumption, age restrictions, drunk driving, the licensing of premises or places or events. Discrimination between types of liquor of the kind we have here is not commonplace, and in this SA is abnormal. We have a particularly puritanical, draconian and arrogant Minister Against Health, Aaron Motsoaledi. He repeatedly makes such self-evidently absurd statements as “smoking has no benefits”, and should therefore be banned. He proposes and is considering far-reaching bans and controls, none of which are based on any empirical evidence published by his department as to efficacy. What he has proposed and his department is known to be considering ranges from tobacco prohibition, through banning liquor ads/marketing, to regulating salt, “junk” food, sugar and dairy products. He seems to be motivated by a kind of blind belief in his virtue and paternal mission on earth, the kind which philosophers have observed is the most dangerous because it is unconstrained by conscience and energized by unstoppable messianic passion. How this applies to the question of what is and is not sold in supermarkets is that we have discriminatory laws regarding liquor. The origin of allowing wine to be more readily available is that the wine industry was a major Apartheid regime constituency and funder. Some of the original sophistry was that wine was more “sophisticated” and less commonly associated with “abuse”. But by that argument, whisky and port, for instance, should also have been allowed in supermarkets. That liquor sales are still banned (in some places) on Sundays is anomalous under our new secular constitution. Instead of repealing this anachronism, he wants to ban all consumption on Sundays. Why Sundays? Heaven help us! It could not possibly be, as asserted without evidence, to get people to work on Mondays. Sunday is, after all, a day on which there is less partying. Maybe the minister is a devout Christian and wants to force people into church, or at least ensure they’re sober and attentive when they get there for morning service, not having gone to drink liquor in some place that serves breakfast. Of course people should be free to buy and sell whatever liquor they wish, whenever and wherever they wish. The way to stop abuse is to ….well, stop abuse (drunk driving, occupation disruption, family violence etc). Abuse of other people, as opposed to “liquor abuse”, should be stopped regardless of whether it is liquor-related. “Liquor abuse” is, of course, a misnomer. Have you ever seen someone punching beer, or whipping wine, or stomping on cowering vodka? People and only people are abused …… by some people who happen sometimes to be drunk, but more commonly and ubiquitously by liquor laws made by people some of whom sometimes happen to be drunk. Incidentally, if someone is going to abuse you, you have a better chance of defending yourself if they are drunk. There is little or no evidence to suggest that people who abuse do so because of liquor; liquor is in some cases a substitute. It is a “downer” thus having a sedative effect. It is also an un-inhibiter, thus leading to abuse that might have been restrained by a sober person. In short, it has countervailing effects, and no simplistic assumptions are justified.

Dino Fagas from Pretoria’s Prosopa Restaurant:

You can probably blame it on Verwoerd, like Zuma blames everything. Only this time it would probably be true. I agree, why should you not be able to?

Mario Pretorius from Telemasters:

Had the world been run on principles, we would never be able to purchase that insidious poison, the family destroying monster, alcohol. Us being the irrational and irresponsible inmates that we are, we’re happy to kill others and ourselves for profit and for pleasure. Since good Queen Bess stopped the church ale sales as a Popish exuberance, we’ve been fighting our better and worse instincts from Prohibition to binge drinking. The Scandinavian state supply monopoly hasn’t cured their Viking thirst, but that and SAB’s lessons in rural distributions made the point: a handy cold beer will find a willing throat. As illogical as a wine/beer display and a hard tack ban in a supermarket may seem, the amateur alcoholic and the professional one do not sup on the lighter stuff. Logically then, to please everyone, all alcohol types should be available at all supermarkets and petrol stations – only on the first Monday of every month. If you can’t plan ahead, you’re not mature enough to be imbibing luscious golden ambrosia – it’s too dangerous for you.

Chris Gilmour from Absa Investments:

This is an apartheid relic. Under the old regime, wine growers were favoured and as a result one could (and still can) buy wine in supermarkets. But one cannot under any circumstances buy beer or spirits in a supermarket. This is utterly incongruous and has no logical underpin at all. What would happen if wines and spirits were allowed to be sold in supermarkets? Apart from the convenience that would be enjoyed by shoppers, absolutely nothing. Would minors be able to buy these items in supermarkets? No. Would people drink more just because of convenience? No. Already one can buy wines and spirits under a separate roof by walking literally a few metres to the liquor store operated by the supermarket. So for example, Spar has “Tops” as its liquor chain and Shoprite/Checkers and Pick n Pay also have stand-alone liquor outlets. Not Woolies, though. So why not amend the law to allow the full range of beers, wines and spirits to be sold in supermarkets? One reason not to do so lies in the fact that about 30% of all South Africans are absolutely teetotal. These people have a vote. Allowing a “free for all” when it comes to selling all types of alcohol in supermarkets would infuriate these people and could, conceivably, result in them not voting for the incumbent government. The bottom line is that what is logical is not always politically acceptable.

Business leader Jeff Osborne:

I think that opening up the licensing to others would create a more competitive market. However, perhaps there should then be limited hours for the sale of hard liquor. Which begs the question: do controls really work? The American system, which rigidly requires ID for sales to youngsters and is draconian in the event of non compliance, might be the answer.

Russell Lamberti from ETM:

You can’t buy a bottle of whisky or gin or port or sherry in a South African supermarket because the government enjoys imposing arbitrary nannying regulations that play to some remote and capricious sense of ‘morality’. Being a lingering hangover from the meddling white supremist Nationalist government, booze regulations only underscore the fact that black nationalists are not altogether too different from white nationalists when it comes to wanting to control their citizens’ behaviour. That you can buy wine in a supermarket (but not on Sundays in some places of course), only proves further how ridiculously arbitrary these regulations are. Of course, the more arbitrary regulations decreed by government fiat, the more chance of the citizenry falling foul of them, which forces the citizen into the utterly coerced position of paying fines or bribes to state officials with an insatiable appetite for lucre. Silly, arbitrary, unnecessary regulations are nothing more than an architecture of state extraction from the private, productive citizens, and the bureaus that administer these regulations are merely extraction nodes; more ways for the parasitic unproductive sector to leach off the dynamic, productive sectors. Should we be able to buy the broad range of liquor in supermarkets? Well, of course we should, but the better question is: why are South Africa’s citizens still allowing themselves to be governed under such arduous nanny statism?


There seems to be some rigid belief that the way in which liquor was sold during the no-TV, no porn, no-fun, no-integration Apartheid days made some sense. It does not, and it is a shame that the current debate over booze sales focuses on the times and days of sale and not on widening the range of products we can conveniently buy from our local supermarket.

Tweets of the Day:

made-up stats (@madeupstats): Between 5% and 65% of stats aren’t very precise

NB : ZA Confidential is to become a subscription product, with full articles available only to subscribers. To subscribe to this service please follow this link

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s