BLSA's Mavuso bemoans lack of transparency, engagement on alcohol ban

Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) CEO Busi Mavuso says President Cyril Ramaphosa should learn to trust the citizens of the country, following the imposition of a new ban on alcohol sales.

“Being secretive – denying the public access both to the discussions on how major decisions are made and to the expert advice and modelling on which the National Command Council claims to base its decisions – instinctively triggers feelings of mistrust in return.

“I cannot know for sure that decisions are based on evidence and expert advice. And when a decision is likely to destroy the livelihoods of possibly millions of citizens, as the alcohol ban does, the need for transparency increases dramatically because its absence fuels damaging speculation among the public about how and why decisions are taken,” she adds.

Mavuso believes that, not only should the President trust the public more, but he should consult more with stakeholders, both before making a decision that affects their livelihoods and afterwards, to explain the rationale behind the decision, to present the evidence and advice received in favour of the decision.

She states that that is how a democracy should work.

Liquor and tourism industry representatives say one-million people and about 350 000 township-based businesses, depend on the liquor industry for their livelihoods.

For any small or microenterprise, even a small loss of revenue has devastating effects.

Those small enterprises that managed to survive the initial alcohol sale ban during the hard lockdown will now suddenly have to close their doors again, probably permanently.

“When considering how many dependants each of those South Africans has, the consequences become terrifying. What makes the situation even more depressing is that many taverns are owned by South Africa’s most vulnerable group: black women.

“Additionally, their businesses are inextricably linked to tourism, the one industry that, pre-Covid-19, promised immense growth potential, which in turn would offer sustainable livelihoods for millions of South Africa’s most vulnerable citizens,” Mavuso notes.

She adds that the tourism industry has every right to feel aggrieved by the ban. It collaborated to develop strict health and safety protocols which were approved by the department of tourism and endorsed by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

A research report by a Business for South Africa workstream states that the industry had de-risked to the extent that it would be among the safest to operate in the country.

It proposed a safe and phased reopening of the tourism sector in a way that would save existing businesses and preserve jobs, while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of guests and staff.

The National Liquor Traders Council, which represents more than 50 000 tavern and shebeen owners, is, meanwhile, turning to the courts, demanding a one-off payment of R20 000 per business as compensation for loss of income due to the two separate bans on the sale of alcohol.

The council says 10 000 taverns have already closed permanently and another 12 500 are barely getting by.

Mavuso points out that, tragically, neither the President nor any relevant government Ministers consulted with the liquor or tourism industries, before or after the decision was made to reimpose the alcohol ban.

Industry representatives say they were given no warning, despite month-long negotiations with government. It is difficult to fathom how government can be in talks with industry representatives yet still give no warning of the ban that will have such devastating consequences.

"In an economy crippled by the pandemic, government’s responsibility is to do everything it can to keep every single business up and running but, because of their decision, many small businesses are likely to go bankrupt with devastating consequences on employees and their family members, while the fiscus generates less tax revenue and the State is burdened by an ever-increasing unemployment rate,” Mavuso notes.

She says one cannot help but suspect that the government decided to ban all alcohol sales because it was the “simplest” thing to do, rather than to find alternative and less disastrous options – such as allowing very limited trading hours nationally and enforcing a strict curfew.

While the latter option would still result in alcohol-related hospital admissions, it would certainly reduce the number of them, Mavuso states.

“Did government even consider this? Did it commission any research into that option? We don’t know because there is no transparency. Did government balance the competing interests of society in making its decision? Did it do all it can to support the livelihoods of those affected by the decision? Unfortunately, there is no evidence that it did.”

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