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In South Africa, “If the cops find you drinking outside, you can be sure to have a beating”

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In Kliptown, Soweto, South Africa, March 19, 2020.
In Kliptown, Soweto, South Africa, March 19, 2020. Siphiwe Sibeko / REUTERS

Bent over the weight of years, the silhouette of Mama Sipiwe slowly strides the streets of Soweto. Like so many others in search of food in these times of confinement, the old knitted lady is unsuspected under her woolen hat. She gauges her interlocutors with a stern eye behind her smoked glasses.

If she is suspicious, it is that Mama Sipiwe, who is not really called that, has many other reasons than to go to the supermarket to beat the streets. Since South Africa banned the sale of alcohol, it has been watering its entire neighborhood in this huge township in the southwest suburb of Johannesburg.

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It has been almost three weeks since the country set up one of the most severe confinements on the planet in order to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. No running, no dog walking, no cigarettes, no alcohol. Officially, South Africa, one of the top ten alcohol consumers on the continent according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is on a dry diet.

In fact, like Mama Sipiwe, an Al Capone army on a small week basis took over from the official debits. Nothing really revolutionary in reality: for decades, the sale of alcohol, a privilege reserved for whites under apartheid, took place under the cloak in black communities.

Drink away from iron gates

This time, the armed wing of prohibition is called Bekhi Cele. A fedora screwed on his head like an American federal agent in the 1920s, the minister of police seems to have found the role of his life there. For now, the measure aims to deter gatherings, try to contain the feared explosion of domestic violence in a country that is breaking records in this area, or even strengthen the immune system of South Africans. But Bekhi Cele said a few days ago that his greatest reward would be to see alcohol permanently banned after confinement.

The minister repeats on all channels that he will be merciless with the offenders. His troops have understood this. At least two men have died in the outskirts of Johannesburg for alleged breaches of this new code of conduct in recent weeks. One fell to the police, the other was beaten, witnesses said.

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In Soweto, the message got through, in a way: “If the cops find you drinking outside, you can be sure to take a beating”, sums up Ntsiki. So we drink from the iron gates. To kill time, because“You have to see what it looks like here” : “There are six of us living in a room or two, if we don’t go out, we suffocate. “

This afternoon, they are a dozen men gathered around beers. Most approve of the bars being closed: “Don’t believe that you don’t care, continues Ntiski. Maybe I’m ignorant or an alcoholic, but in the evening I get paranoid and I pray that I won’t get infected, I’m afraid for my father. “

No time to stock up

A little further on, an old man is sitting alone in his garden, a bottle in his hand. At 68, Vezi needs his three liters of beer a day, sprinkled with gin when there is one. He says that alcohol makes him happy and that he feels bad when he is not drinking. Depriving people to fight a virus … He does not see the report and he wants to “Those who make the laws”.

“They are quiet at home with their bottles. We, containment fell on us without having the means to make stocks. ” In the absence of provisions, we must refuel. Nothing very complicated so far in Soweto. If the iron curtains of the taverns are down, the stocks have simply migrated.

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“The risk is low because there is nothing left in the bars, everything happens in the houses”, explains a salesman by selling cigarettes on the run. Another reason may explain his serenity. In recent days, several police officers suspected of being involved in the alcohol trade have been arrested.

In the Western Cape province, two warrant officers were caught buying alcohol from a liquor store for resale, officials said. In Mpumalanga, two others were stopped while escorting three pickups filled with alcohol.

Notable drop in crime

Despite this setback, Bekhi Cele, the Minister of Police, has reason to be happy. During the first week of confinement, violent crimes plunged like never before in the country. The number of murders fell from 326 to 94, compared to 2019, the number of rapes from 699 to 101, and the assaults dropped from 2,673 to 456. A phenomenon that the minister attributes in large part to the sale ban. alcohol. “Everyone knows that alcohol is a factor in crime, he explained recently. Most people murdered or raped are from Thursday to Sunday and [ces violences] originate in places where alcohol is consumed. “

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Experts qualify by also pointing to the strong police presence linked to confinement and the difficulty of moving around. But even in the very dreaded hostels from Soweto, the observation is shared. Built under apartheid to house migrant workers, these collective huts have a reputation for operating under their own laws. Worried about the lack of masks and hydroalcoholic gel in this particularly exposed corner which cannot count on the help of any NGO, one of the community leaders agrees to open the doors.

Never have the aisles been so quiet, he says. Admittedly, the closing of taverns is certainly not unrelated to it. “When people come here to drink, they start playing with guns and knives. So yes, closing bars is a game-changer ”, confirms Sbonelo, an inhabitant of the container field who spans the extension of the brick barracks. Even the night gatherings are gone. “There is no more noise at night, I can’t believe it, I can finally sleep”, blows a resident.

Increase in violence against women

How to explain the phenomenon when the informal stocks are not yet exhausted? It is undoubtedly that the confinement, which has just been extended until the end of the month, is already imposing its financial constraints when the prices of alcohol have doubled and houses are no longer in credit. “Everyone is desperate, explains a resident. We count each rand to buy food. Even those who still have a salary must support the family in the countryside. “

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If residents of poor neighborhoods readily attribute the fall in violence to the ban on the sale of alcohol, there is one statistic that worries the authorities. During the first four days of confinement, more than 2,300 calls were made to the headquarters dedicated to the management of violence against women. This is three times more than the daily average recorded from January to March. The figure questions activists who have not seen the expected peak in violence.

“The call center is the victim of hoaxes, others are making complaints that have nothing to do with women. Unable to draw conclusions until we have detailed statistics, ” says Claudia Lopes, communications manager for the Heinrich Böll foundation in Cape Town. Ultimately, it remains very difficult at this stage to assess the impact of the ban on the sale of alcohol on domestic violence.

“We know that alcohol is a determining factor in this violence, but it is also a way to endure the difficulties. In this time when everyone loses control over their existence, lack can just as well exacerbate tensions, “ says Beverly Gumede, legal counsel for Lawyers against Abuse (LvA), in the township of Diepsloot, just outside Johannesburg.

Since the beginning of the confinement, another concern concerns her much more seriously: to manage to maintain the activity of the association which did not obtain the statute of “Essential service”. The center has been closed for almost three weeks in this township, which is said to be one of the most brutal in the country in terms of violence against women. Despite everything, at Diepsloot, beer is always easier to find than the way to call for help.

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