Food for thought
The demon of alcohol abuse is alive and well on the platteland, writes Ernusta van Wyngaard
If you’re looking for the demon of alcohol abuse, you need look no further than the South African platteland – especially over weekends and on AllPay days, says Ernusta van Wyngaard.
His eyes stare blankly into mine as I talk about things I think he should be able to understand by now. He is 19, on the threshold of adulthood. When he speaks I can hear that he wants to sound like the grownups around him, but something is wrong with his brain and his capacity to understand fully. His older brother, who died in May 2014 at the age of 32, had the same empty look in his eyes: a light that just never went on.
This young man is my cousin and, although he has never been diagnosed officially, I know what lies behind his forever empty gaze. He – and, I think, his late brother too – is a child of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) because my aunt, who was a farm worker for most of her life, drank excessively while she was pregnant with them.
As ignorant and illiterate as my aunt was, I do not know whether she understood that alcohol harms unborn children. But I do know that she could not have stopped drinking on her own, even if she’d wanted to. I don’t recall a single day as a child that I did not see her and her husband, now both deceased, intoxicated to some degree. It was as if they could not function without alcohol.
I witnessed this situation every weekend as a plaaskind growing up near Bonnievale in the Western Cape. After a week of hard work, farm workers couldn’t wait to get to the bottle store on a Friday to buy their supply for the weekend. Some of them even finished a litre of cheap booze, wrapped in telltale brown paper, in just a few swallows. The five-litre can of alcohol was for the weekend, and sometimes there was more than just one can.
I live in Cape Town today, but whenever I visit my parents in Bonnievale I witness the effects of the demon of alcohol abuse. And in Cape Town the demon lurks among the homeless who have no shelter or work but are constantly drunk.
Who should bear the blame for a community or group of people – generally the poorest – who remain trapped in the claws of the demon? Of course these people make the choice to drink in the first place and they must take responsibility for the devastation they wreak in their own lives. But we cannot deny the fact that the effects of the tot (or dop) system, which farmers once used to pay their workers in alcohol, are still being felt in the poorest communities. Workers became dependent on alcohol, and in some families this evil cycle has been passed down from one generation to the next.
Of course the villain of the piece is different today: it is the person who takes cheap alcohol to the farms to sell to workers; the one who manufactures this cheap rubbish; the liquor-licence holder who sells the stuff for as little as R12 a litre; the bottle-store owner who sells on a tab, conducts afterhours sales on the sly and, yes, even
‘No, you’re not forcing anyone – but you’re taking advantage of the inability and unwillingness of these people to stop drinking.
sells alcohol to children; and it is the government (also in the form of the liquor boards and police) that makes millions from tax on alcohol but doesn’t enforce the law nor hold the guilty accountable.
When it comes to alcohol abuse, particularly among farm workers and the poor, far too many people throw up their hands. It’s as if some parties go out of their way to make alcohol as accessible and cheap as possible to those who, on a financial, welfare and social level, can least afford to drink.
Producers and suppliers of cheap alcohol say: “We’re meeting a demand and don’t force anyone to buy it.” No, you’re not forcing anyone – but you’re taking advantage of the inability and unwillingness of these people to stop drinking. You feed the demon that decimates families and communities.
Even we “ordinary well-meaning” folk can’t say that we’re entirely blameless. We remain silent about the cheap booze, which looks a lot like fish oil, that is frequently displayed on the same shelves as our favourite awardwinning red or white wines.
It’s about time South Africans understand that we live in a society – not on private islands. Alcohol abuse is a shared problem and we must seek solutions together. I doubt this scourge will ever be completely eliminated from the lives of the poor people of the platteland or suburbs, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Wherever possible, I am trying by supporting my cousin, whose future has already been bedevilled by the demon of alcohol abuse. I try to impress upon him that, although he faces obstacles, his future is in his own hands. What are you going to do?
• Read more about foetal alcohol syndrome at sancawc.co.za.
Ernusta van Wyngaard is the chief reporter at Kuier magazine.