Drinking in South African society
October 10, 2011 in Uncategorized
With alcohol so much in the news in South Africa these days, I have dedicated the last two weeks to an examination of the situation around alcohol consumption and abuse in the country. I started with the issue of using breathalyser equipment on South African roads, and then went on to discuss the actual numbers pertaining to consumption. However, what we need to do now is to look at exactly why people in South Africa are drinking so much alcohol. Breathalysers and medical care are expensive, and they represent an expense which could be much better spent on curbing alcohol abuse in the first place.
In the case of an intoxicating or recreational substance, one of the most important factors surrounding the use of that substance is its social context of usage. The more socially acceptable a substance is, the wider its footprint of usage is going to be. In South Africa, alcohol is available in virtually every price range and to suit many different tastes. With the exception of relatively small religious minorities, it may not be seen as something taboo or controversial.
The question as to why people want to drink may be largely related to their social experience of drinking. Drinking habits are sometimes acquired as the person grows up through adolescence, or they may turn to drink at a later stage in life, in the company of drinking peers. The legal age of alcohol purchase in South Africa is 18 years. At that age, you can also qualify for a full driver’s licence and vote in an election. Many people finish school and enter the labour force at around 18 or 19. What this means is that they have the funds to buy a substantial amount of alcohol, and they are also drivers. And as we have seen in a previous article, in South Africa the funds required to support an alcohol habit are not all that substantial.
But besides the logistics of the situation, there is also the concept of social sanction. People do not approve of things such as loud swearing or excessive nudity in public. Concerning substances, the smoking of cigarettes has become socially discouraged, which is why smokers usually excuse themselves before they light up, or go outside. But we do not see the same type of stigma around alcohol abuse in South Africa. Even though alcohol also causes health issues (as well as anti-social behaviour, which the smoking of cigarettes does not, besides the act of smoking itself), people seem more accommodating of drinking and getting drunk. In fact, drunken behaviour is likely to be the source of humour and even self-aggrandisement.
This should be seen in the context of socialising in South Africa. Alcohol is served almost as a matter of course at many social functions or gatherings. It is tradition to accompany a meal or festive occasion with alcohol. Even if the drinker drinks responsibly, never gets drunk, and limits their consumption, it is not hard to see why they might end up consuming several litres of pure alcohol every year. The average in South Africa is 20 litres per annum, which means that some people are drinking more than that, even if some are drinking less.
The availability of alcohol in conjunction with its socially accepted status has led to a situation in which it is easy to abuse alcohol. Even if people are educated in the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, or are made more sensitive to the anti-social nature of the behaviour that it causes, as long as it remains socially acceptable to drink hard people are probably going to continue doing so. The smoking of cigarettes used to be socially acceptable. Even though cigarettes are still legally on the market, their social acceptability has declined, and their consumption has followed suit.
I should perhaps add that many people in South Africa are responsible users of alcohol, and that alcohol abuse is also a serious problem in other countries of the world. But focusing on the situation in South Africa specifically, if we take the statistic that one in five drinkers is an alcoholic, we are left with an alcoholic population of around two million people. However, addiction has degrees of seriousness. What this means is that, of the remaining four people, a couple may have a drinking problem or sometimes use alcohol excessively, even if they are not full-blown alcoholics. This places them at risk of health damage and road accidents, besides which their careers may be limited and their domestic situation may be undesirable. They may not develop cirrhosis of the liver or cause an accident at work, but then again, many smokers have reduced lung capacity and a higher incidence of respiratory infections, without contracting the more serious diseases related to smoking.
Alcoholism is an extreme situation, but even a heavy drinker who is not an alcoholic may still suffer the negative effects of abusing the substance, as may their family, dependants and friends. For the sake of the health of the population and a more harmonious society, people in South Africa should try to promote an atmosphere of responsible use around alcohol, and educate the younger generation in the same fashion.