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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.

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