South african drinking culture
for about four months when I went on a weeklong hike with a friend and four of her friends, none of whom I’d met before. The night before we set off, we had dinner together, and they were discussing what wine to order.
‘Red or white, Sabine?’ one of them asked me.
‘Oh, don’t worry about me, I don’t drink,’ I said.
And there it was, so subtle that if you didn’t know what to look for you’d miss it: the blink, the half-smile, and the ever-sounderstated summing up and dismissal of the teetotaller as a judgy killjoy.
And while I wasn’t a judgy killjoy on that hike – it wasn’t the kind of situation in which anybody would drink the bar dry and dance on the tables, after all – being in the company of drunk partygoers when you’re sober certainly makes you want to slap people. And not because you’re jealous; because they’re so annoying.
I’d decided, when I quit drinking, that I’d carry on as normal. A lifelong single mom to two (then) teenagers with a from-home job that gave me very flexible working hours, I was an inveterate party girl. Lots of my friends were also creative types and freelancers, not tied down to early mornings or office hours, and they’d rock up at my place whenever there was a lull in their working day. And if there wasn’t a lull, hell, we’d just create one. A couple of gin and tonics on the veranda inevitably turned into regular all-night, all-out binges, complete with happily crazed conversations that went everywhere and nowhere.
As a drinker, I’d loved it. As a teetotaller, it didn’t work for me at all. By 11pm, when in the old days the party would be just starting to really get going, I was already mightily weary of being sloppily kissed or overenthusiastically hugged, having wine spilled on me and being told the same story repeatedly, only a little louder each time.
So it’s been three years since I saw a sunrise following an all-night jol. It’s been three years since I danced so hard and for so long that I woke up sore. It’s been three years since I fell in bottle-bottom lust with whoever was sitting across the table from me.
But it’s also been three years since I passed out rather than actually fell asleep. (The difference between blotto oblivion and real sleep is chalk and cheese.) It’s been three years since I behaved so inappropriately that when I woke up, I immediately longed to lapse into a coma. It’s been three years since I crawled through the day on a black-dog hangover, headachy and liverish, riven with regret and anxiety, and binge eating to feed some yawning great ravine in the very centre of my soul.
Which is all delightful. For me, the concept of waking up every single morning with a clear head was, prior to quitting drinking, as foreign as the notion that life without alcohol was a possibility. South Africa has a big drinking culture. As a country, we have one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world, at an average of 10 to 12 ℓ per person per year, compared to the global average of 6 ℓ per person per year. According to online fact-checking organisation Africa Check, when looking only at those South Africans who drink, consumption rises to 27,1 ℓ of beer, wine, spirits and other alcoholic drinks per person per year.
‘According to World Health Organization data, the risk profile of such drinking places South Africa at level 4, on a scale [of 1 to 5], with 1 being the least risky and 5 the most risky,’ the website states.
For many South Africans, any leisure activity, from a kids’ party to a Sunday brunch, from a weekend away to a picnic at a local beauty spot, is synonymous with alcohol. And, like many South Africans, I grew up in a house with a fully stocked bar, wine with meals and red-letter days celebrated with bottles of champagne. Being able to hold your booze or drink someone else under the table was a badge of honour, not something to worry about. We – I, my family and my friends – considered people who didn’t drink boring: they didn’t know how to live!
The truth is, however, that heavy drinkers’ relationship with alcohol is often so complex that it’s impossible to separate cause and effect. Some people drink to escape; some people drink to forget; and eventually, many people drink because they can’t not. Concerningly, research shows that heavy drinkers very often cross the line into full-blown alcoholism without realising it – it sneaks up on you.