On Sunday night, July 12, not long after the clock had struck eight and the president had scolded the nation and reached into his lucky packet of pandemic regulations, an untold, uncounted and unabashed number of South Africans rushed to break the “law” he had just announced.
The frantic ringing of the phones of bar and restaurant owners around South Africa became a short-lived national anthem. Orders were placed for the stocks of alcohol sitting in storerooms and fridges, stock that would not be used, stock that would just sit there until the president allowed the kids to use the PlayStation again.
On Monday, July 13, regulars at bars around Joburg were already parked outside the front door, their boots cleared to make space for sub-urban bootlegging. I heard of one restaurant that had little stock left by Monday lunchtime, save for some wine, moonshine gin and vodka and cider, the light version. Across Johannesburg, doors of pubs and clubs were knocked on, opened carefully and passwords exchanged.
Trust had to be established. Security guards were keeping an eye out for cops doing slow drive-bys. Cars were parked out of sight of the road. Wine, beer and whiskey were hidden under blankets and bags in the boot, stashed in the glove compartment and shoved under seats to be taken to a place of safety and refuge.
Stock obtained was tallied against the possible length of the new ban. Two beers a day? A glass of wine a day? Do you stretch it out, go into ration mode or just go for it and look for more when that time comes? Angus, who sells artisanal cheese in Craighall Park, said he had a bottle of brandy that he uses to put into his homemade chicken liver pate for sale. He said his pate would now come sans brandy.
It’s a crockdown of a lockdown. It’s a time of madness and nothingness, a time of necessary and arbitrary regulations, with, it seems, the arbitrary policed that bit harder and with more enthusiasm than the necessary.
Why? Because it’s easier and a softer target. And it gets more publicity. And it makes the bosses happy, the ministers like Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma, who on Monday, not long after pubs and clubs and others had shifted stock and ensured some small chance of their financial survival, told South Africans “It’s our responsibility to call the police when we see people with alcohol.” Well, actually, it’s not. It is our responsibility to report parties, more than 50 people in a church, taxis with no windows cracked and call out people not wearing masks. Clarice, who puts the Meanie into Dlamini, was, as the writer Gus Silber joked, practising “Teetotalitarianism.”
Our responsibilities are to be kind to others during this time to the best of our ability. It’s our responsibility to help those struggling to make ends meet because of this ban. I had two barmen at my local, Giles, reach out to me for help with the rent. They relied heavily on tips when they could sell alcohol. Now, Pholani, back at work as an occasional waiter, has started selling hand wash and a dog-grooming business. He doesn’t even like dogs.
Sbu is thinking of selling his beloved bakkie and buying a smaller car to do deliveries. He has been delivering veggies on the side. A waiter, John, is not sure if he will have a job by next week. Smiley, whose smile has left him, said he had “nothing”, and now knew what it was like to be “really, truly poor”.
Steve, a manager, told me Giles is considering closing down until they can sell alcohol to sitting down or standing up customers. My mate, Rob, who I would meet at Giles regularly before lockdown went to Defcon 5, is worried it may never open again.
Giles is owned by a conglomerate of regulars and Mike, the owner of the Founders Grill. The regulars loved the bar so much they invested in it when the Gillies family sold it in 2018. It’s a special space, a place where, to steal a line, everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. It is a Joburg icon.
On the Monday after the Sunday, one of the other regulars said that he had heard this booze ban would last for five weeks. It could be longer. Some think it will be two months. Already, those who like a tipple to take the edge off the remains of their days have broken the “law” and they will break it again. There is panic in the streets of Joburg. There is panic in the offices of the president. Panic during a pandemic. It’s not a good mix.
Then, on the Tuesday after the Sunday, Mike called. They had been forced to retrench all of their staff. That way, the staff could get a package and apply for UIF. Mike said it was the worst morning he had ever had in the hospitality industry. He hoped they would be able to open again when things returned some sort of normal. Things may never be normal again. We may have seen the last of Giles.