Soweto (South Africa) – Scores of people lined up outside liquor stores in South Africa’s township of Soweto on Monday, waiting to buy drinks for the first time in nine weeks after a ban on alcohol sales was lifted.
Buying booze was prohibited when Africa’s most industrialised economy went into lockdown on March 27 to stem the spread of coronavirus.
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 to level three 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 queing 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 31-year-old nurse Anele Mapoma.
“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,” he said.
Another Soweto resident, who asked not be named, said 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,” the 24-year-old said as she stood outside a liquor store in the suburb of Pimville, wearing a face mask and dark hoodie.
-‘Traumatising’ black market-
As shop doors opened at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) , customers queueing in face masks were ordered to keep a safe distance from one another and allowed one small group to enter 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 customer 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 three restrictions, everything except high-risk economic sectors will be allowed to reopen, as will schools and places of worship.
However an ongoing ban on cigarette sales remains a thorny issue, with the country’s biggest tobacco producer British American Tobacco South Africa launching legal proceedings against the government last week.
– ‘Reduce consumption’ –
The country ranks 30th in the world in terms of per capita alcohol consumption, according to the World Health Organisation’s 2010 figures.
At the beginning of the lockdown, the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence warned that a sudden cut in supply of alcohol causes physical and mental problems.
In response to reports of long queues for booze, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize pleaded with citizens not to “panic-buy” alcohol and to “reduce consumption”.
Local online news outlet News24 reported that a liquor store in Johannesburg was robbed by thieves who tunnelled through the solid concrete floor to gain access.
The robbery was discovered by the store manager on Friday, the report said.
South Africa has recorded the continent’s highest coronavirus numbers, with 32,600 infections and 683 deaths.
Health experts have predicted that South Africa’s coronavirus outbreak will peak between July and November, causing at least 40,000 deaths.