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TESSA VAN STADEN: Our dubious harvest

Opinion,Tessa van Staden
Tessa van Staden
Opinion

Why do so many South Africans abuse alcohol?


Vomit. I’m staring at a basin filled with it.

I choke back bile as I sneak a look at the fellow student who’s now seated on the toilet in the communal bathroom of the residence, her face grey and clammy. She’s shivering.

I’m nauseous, intensely uncomfortable, clumsy and curious all at once. Until that moment I’d never actually seen someone who was so drunk that she was still incoherent the morning after. I had no idea what to do.

The smell was overpowering. Years later, my eyes still water when I recall that Sunday morning in Stellenbosch.

A few days later, in the lunch queue, our eyes met. But she quickly lowered hers, visibly embarrassed and then shuffled past with her tray.

At the time I was baffled. Why drink so much that you’re ashamed and humiliated afterwards? Was it something beyond her control? Peer pressure? Or did she know exactly what she was doing and purposely drank to shut out the world?

I don’t know what happened to that particular student after University.

I know I sound sanctimonious; I was genuinely interested and confused.

Growing up, drinking a glass of wine was something our family shared on Sunday afternoons with lunch or on a special occasion. My parents don’t really drink. In our family, food was - and still is -- the substance we choose to overindulge. Drinking never came up. The discussion was usually about how we should be exercising more and eating less.

After I studied I worked in Gauteng for a while, before moving to New York for two years. As I was studying again it was natural that I’d compare some experiences with my time at Stellenbosch. The pace was incredible. It was intense. There was very little time for partying. I was struck by the fact that I seldom saw students apoplectically drunk. Of course many went out, clubbing etc. But I can count the number of times I saw people so drunk they couldn’t walk, or talk, on one hand. American beer is different than ours, I know. The alcohol content is much less. But they drink wine, cocktails, bourbon and rum.

Fast forward a few years and I’m living in the Winelands again. Given the fact that so many of the stories we cover have some or other link to alcohol abuse, it’s something I’m consistently aware of. Call it a refrain or a theme in my sub-conscious. From drunk parents’ whose children go missing to drunk students who crash cars, to the presence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, to the ongoing debate about liquor laws and the mushrooming of illegal shebeens.

Professor Charles Barry, a contributor to the Global Drug Trafficking Report, has found that South Africa has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption per drinker, anywhere in the world. A study in 2007 found that alcohol-related harm accounted for more than 7% of all deaths.

I was at a restaurant not too long ago and there was a large table of amateur sportsmen celebrating a win. The men ranged in ages from late twenties to late thirties. As the evening progressed they became more boisterous. Bottles of wine were being opened and consumed. Waiters kept delivering drinks. The talking got louder. Someone had brought a 15 or 20 litre bottle, probably for display. Oblivious to their surroundings one of the men opened the massive bottle and was now drinking from it. I turned around to look at other diners. A young boy, not older than 12, was sitting a nearby table. But I’ll never forget his face. He was looking at these raucous men with utter contempt and disgust.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has said that communicable diseases are placing as much, if not more, of a burden on our health system than HIV/Aids. These include obesity and - in the Western Cape -- alcohol abuse.

I know the reasons for drinking - and drinking too much -- vary greatly, depending on one’s history, personal circumstances, income etc. 

South African society has become so sensitised to seeing grown men stumbling and slurring their words, that we don’t cry out or raise the alarm when we should.

Take a recent incident in Limpopo as an example. Violence erupted in the small village of, Nsako, after a shebeen owner refused to sell booze to minors. Residents then assaulted the woman because she wouldn’t acquiesce. When they descended she fired into the crowd, killing two people. The following day the shebeen owner’s husband returned to fetch stock. But angry locals were waiting for him. Police say the beat him until he died.

Doesn’t that fill you with outrage?!

Incredulity?!

That story wasn’t covered in the major newspapers or wire services. It should’ve been, because it’s not normal. But when you have a dozen such - or similar - incidents a week, or a month, it becomes par for the course.

Is that what’s happened to us?

The SA National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey found that more than half of all pupils in this country had used alcohol in 2002. A staggering 23% admitted to having engaged in binge drinking in the month before the study. That was ten years ago. I wonder what the figures are now.

I’ve seen relatives become intoxicated and I’ve been repulsed by them. Not because they drink - I enjoy a glass of wine with a meal several times a week - but when said relatives drink too much, they either become embarrassing, comatose or abusive. It’s as if the alcohol enlarges their worst traits.

And I hate the fact that their addiction or lack of control, in some instances, make me judgmental. Not only are they choosing to damage their own health, they’re damaging the lives of their loved ones.

We cannot afford to be complacent just because we see or hear this happening often, particularly if we want our children to make better choices.

Tessa van Staden is the Deputy News Editor for Eyewitness News, in Cape Town. Follow her on Twitter @tessvstaden

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