If I reach the end of this article having retained a modicum of dispassion I will have succeeded. What I am about to tell you is as delicate as the famous lace iron architecture of the 1900s. This is a short history of last rounds in South Africa. It begins in 1883 with President Kruger opening the first (alcohol distillery) factory in the South African Republic and christening it Volkshoop or People’s hope in English. The alcohol manufacturing industry proved to be a god send then both for the boer agricultural industry which supplied the distillery with raw materials such as potatoes and citrus fruit and the mining industry which needed more workers.
In fact alcohol proved to be an effective tool used to retain labour in the burgeoning mining industry desperate for workers. Liquor became an instrument for controlling the African workforce as liquor provided the only form of escape from the squalor and misery of work in the mining compounds for most miners. Paradoxically the use of liquor helped to provide a more stable workforce, as African workers were known to abandon their contracts leave the mines and never return.
Employers of mine workers soon realized that free spending on liquor reduced the amount of money a worker could save for taking home at the end of his contract and accordingly the less he saved the longer he worked. A mining commissioner stated in court that “nearly everyone is agreed that total prohibition would be disastrous to the native labour position.”
Inevitably after many years the Chamber of Mines conceded that drunkenness was on the increase at the mines and that as a consequence the scarcity of labour was intensified. It was becoming clear that the increased expansion of the liquor industry might disable the mining industry. After using liquor to manipulate the labour force the chamber finally realized it had gone too far. It acquired a seat in the Johannesburg Liquor Licensing Board, which made the sale of liquor to an African who did not possess a permit signed by his white “master” a crime.
In 2015 much of the political history of Alcohol remains unchanged with one exception – it is now not a crime to sell alcohol to Africans. The historical consequences of this soft engineering are as deep as the deepest mine in the world which goes beyond the 3 kilometer mark and is located in Johannesburg, South Africa. Last year the World Health Organization released a global report on alcohol and health which ranked South Africa as the highest consumer of alcohol on the continent, at 11.0 percent consumption per capita. This equates to over 5 billion liters of alcohol consumed annually at 9-10 liters per person. While South Africa did not make the top 20 list globally, alcohol consumption in the country still has disastrous consequences particularly for women who are the largest consumers of alcohol in the country, and children who are born with the highest rate of Foetal Alcohol syndrome in the world.
Because then it becomes less about the numbers, profit margins, labour, industry and even the power to control. It becomes about life and the loss of it, about the heart and the preservation of it. Before you call for a last round, consider herstory. None of this will be possible without her. Just in case you were wondering what it’s all about.