Prohibition fever is enough to drive one to drink

The Transport Department believes that alcohol is turning South Africa into a banana republic. That’s what department spokesperson Collen Msibi told the media this week, explaining the department’s bid to eliminate drunken driving through the National Road Traffic Amendment Act, reducing the allowed amount of alcohol in a driver’s bloodstream to almost nil.

It’s an opportune time to have the law passed, because there’s no doubt that the 60+ Day hard lockdown brought about a remarkable reduction in deaths on the roads (as well as a sharp decrease in the carnage at casualty departments in hospitals across the country).

But was this because of the unavailability of the demon drink or the fact that we were all ostensibly locked up in our homes? No one’s asked that question, but Msibi isn’t alone, there’s been a growing clamour for prohibition generally, driven by a mix of biblical compulsion and statist thrill.

There’s no doubt that booze is a massive factor in domestic violence, general anti-social conduct and road deaths. But, ignoring for the sake of the argument that there are plenty of people who can and do behave responsibly, if we take the slaughter on the roads as an example; there’s also the issue of speeding, driving unroadworthy vehicles and generally driving like a selfish arsehole.

If we ban liquor, shouldn’t we also ban self-drive vehicles and pivot to autonomous driving vehicles whose algorithms will outlaw sho’t lefts or overtaking on blind rises? The problem with blanket prohibitions is that they don’t change the root human behaviour; they just make us feel great for a moment because of the semblance of someone doing something to address a real societal ill.

We have rules: about speeding, about unroadworthy vehicles, about hitting women – or each other. We have rules that unequivocally outlaw drinking and driving, drinking at the workplace or even being drunk in public. The elephant in the room is that we don’t apply them and when rules aren’t applied, they aren’t observed.

Our prosecutors have an uphill battle to secure convictions in court; the labs are tardy with the blood tests, dockets perpetually go missing, the court rolls are congested. The few dronkies that do get sent down will probably be the first to be released on parole on amnesty; presidential or pandemic, to cope with perennial over-crowding – because they aren’t perceived as bad as axe murderers or rapists.

Alcohol is only one of the many problems we have, but it is a highly convenient dog whistle for the incompetents and hypocrites to distract from their own failings. It certainly isn’t the reason why we are, in Msibi’s words, turning into a banana republic. But if Msibi believes that, perhaps he should look to his own minister for counsel.

We don’t need more rules, especially ones that are disproportionate and irrational, we just need to apply the ones that we have, fairly, uniformly and consistently. If you can’t drink responsibly, then don’t – or face the consequences. But there have to be consequences.

The fact that no one gets it, is enough to drive you to drink.

Originally published on 12 of June 2020 in the Saturday Star