The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) mourn the deaths of 21 teenagers who died mysteriously in a tavern in East London, Eastern Cape.

Teenage alcohol consumption, liquor licences and liquor outlets

Besides that death is tragic by nature and the mystery surrounding these deaths compounds the shock they have struck in the families of the deceased, communities and
the nation as a whole; the fact that they died at a tavern is a course for concern.

But working class communities are shocked so much by a manner in which these kids perished, not so much that they died at a tavern. This is because alcohol consumption by teenagers has become common occurrence in our communities, and arguably, communities have unfortunately accepted that their teenagers not only drink, but drink at taverns.

In a journal article published on the African Journal of Primary Health Care and Family Medicine (AJPHCFM) in 2015, the 32.2% of the respondents between the ages of 15 and 17 years sampled in the study reported they drink alcohol. In addition, it was found that of the Grade 10 and 11 learners sampled, “35.5% male and 29.7% female students drank alcohol in their lifetime” whilst a 21% of them reported binge drinking.

The South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) article established in 2016 through survey that lifetime alcohol use initiation year is averaged at 13 years. The article further painted a gloomy picture about alcohol consumption by adolescents, showing that consumption of alcohol by adolescents fluctuated between 43% and 45% for females and 53% and 56% for males.

The alcohol consumption among children has led the South African government regulating the alcohol consumption, prohibiting children under the age of 18 from consuming alcohol. This is among some of the regulations that the SA Liquor Board has incorporated into liquor licences, barring alcohol liquor outlets from selling to children under the age of 18.

Despite this prohibition by the liquor regulatory body, taverns and other liquor outlets have continued selling alcohol and serving in their taverns, children under the age of 18.

This incident in East London is a classic example of the norm in our communities, where the liquor outlets sells alcohol to children under the age of 18.

SAFTU demands that the SA Liquor Board revoke the liquor licence of Enyobeni Tavern and charge the owner for contravening the regulations prohibiting the sale of alcohol for people under the age of 18. According to the Musician who was at the scene of the tragedy, it is not the first time kids are allowed into that tavern. His version supports the comments of parents and community members quoted in the media, who have said
that they have always been opposed to that tavern serving under-aged children.

Furthermore, the law enforcement agencies must clamp down on all liquor outlets that sell liquor to under-aged children.

Capitalism, failing state and a broken society

Because of individualism, some may blame the families of the deceased for poor parental control, but as SAFTU, we assert that this is an indictment on our society as a whole. The intersection of capitalism, racism and patriarchy has produced broken black and coloured families and communities.

The capitalist mode of production, predicated on selling commodities and extracting profits, structurally reproduce unemployment and poverty.

Unemployment is about 76% amongst the youth between the ages of 15 and 24. Over 12.4 million people are unemployed, and the overwhelming majority of them are in black working class areas — townships and villages. In the classic manifestation of the proverbial expression, “idling hands [mind] are the ‘devil’s’ workshop,” the escape from pauperism, lack of activity and hopelessness has been crime and violence, drugs and alcohol abuse, and criminality.

Even the problem of selling alcohol to under-aged children is not solely the problem of collapsing morality as others opine, but is primarily a problem of capitalism. The underaged children have become a crucial section of the market for liquor outlets in the
townships, and tavern owners have resolved to break the law to leverage this market.

This makes more sense in rural areas where adults have migrated to urban areas in search of jobs and higher education, and the dominant lever of society in rural areas is the adolescent and school going age population. To make profits in these areas, tavern owners sell to children.

This is not surprising though, for capitalism knows no morality except the morality of the markets and profiteering.

Compounding the problems in working class communities is the neoliberal policies of the government. Due to the problems related to the policy of austerity – budget cuts – the state has underfunded the social services. In the education sector, this has led to poor schooling foundation for many children which, combining with other factors of the social crisis of capitalism, leads to massive school dropouts.

More than 40% of mothers are battling alone trying to raise children under extremely challenging conditions. Statistics South Africa revealed that 60% of children in SA grow up without the love and support of their fathers. Though some mothers succeed to groom children without behavioural problems, some mothers cannot cope and drown alongside their kids in alcoholism, drug abuse and a vicious circle of hopelessness.

Linked to the dysfunctional families is the deteriorating social condition as a result of the deepening crisis of capitalism. Unemployment, poverty, backward patriarchal ideas and
broken family structures have produced:

a. one of the most depressed nation in the world in which the rate of suicide particularly amongst men in our country has reached disproportionate levels, and

b. the most violent society, which, in proportions is equivalent to that of a war torn country. Crime Statistics has revealed that 68 people are killed on average daily in this country. These are people who die violently and mysteriously from a thing as simple as an argument in taverns to gangsterism feuds and to Gender Based Violence.

Combined with the collapsing law and order, lawlessness has become the order of the day. This is the reason why tavern owners do not even bother complying with the regulations in their liquor licences, and some even engage in trade of illicit and prohibited products such as drugs.

It is that lawlessness that allows a 13 year old to be at a shebeen in the first place, let alone post-midnight. Parents have a responsibility to report taverns that contravene their liquor licences, and the police must protect those parents threatened by the tavern owners.

We need a genuine left mass movement of the working class to take up these campaigns. No pseudo communists using a left rhetoric have the interest to confront these faultlines in our society that have emerged as a result of the capitalist system.

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