The ban may be lifted, but we can’t ignore the toll on women. Please give our women in beer a fighting chance.

11 Feb 21

Only two months into a new year, one realises that times are really tough. 2021 is showing itself to be the sequel to the hardship that was 2020. The reality is that, many of us have had to balance our own personal and professional challenges whilst trying to navigate the completely unpredictable and unchartered terrain that is COVID-19. As a mom and busy executive, I constantly balance many responsibilities, always striving to do my best every day, whether it’s for my children, my colleagues, my industry or even my country.

The impact of the lockdown and the three alcohol bans have been tough not only on our company, our industry colleagues but our broader value chain at large. Most days I consider myself fortunate that my lockdown scars were only as deep as a salary cut. Sadly, many of my colleagues in the industry cannot say the same – their wounds are much deeper. This is doubly depressing when I think of all the hardworking female entrepreneurs and businesswomen the alcohol ban has impacted.

Beer and the craft of brewing has been so disproportionately linked with men and it’s easy to forget women were the original brewers. Moreover, in my culture, women are the makers of all the traditional beer that is enjoyed at cultural festivities. With the prohibition Liquor Laws of the 1920’s, Black people could not have liquor licenses. As a result this led to an underground movement that gave rise to Shebeen Queens – a revival of the African tradition that assigned the role of alcohol brewing to women.

Fast forward to 2020 and South Africa has a sizeable legal tavern industry worth between R40 and R60 billion – one of the key employment generators for our townships and rural areas. Of the 35,000 tavern business supporting mainly Black entrepreneurs, over 54% of these businesses owned by women according to a work done by the National Liquor Traders Council. The beer industry is not as male dominated as you might think, especially when it comes to townships and taverns.

With South Africa implementing not one, but three alcohol bans that put over 35,000 tavern owners’ livelihoods and the communities they support at serious risk. One can’t ignore that the fallout of these bans was severe for the most vulnerable women among us, those who are rarely in the headlines: Mam’Rita (owner of Busy Corner), Mam’Mapule (owner of Disofeng), Mam’Lilly (owner of Owner of Getties Tavern) and many other female taverners. All of whom have not been able to earn a steady living for the better part of the last 10 months, struggling to keep their families alive as their businesses crumbled beneath her feet.

Taverns and retailers are more than just customers to SAB, they are our extended family. They work tirelessly to give us a presence and are our biggest ambassadors.

When I spoke to industry stalwart, Mam’Fanny Mokoena, from the Gauteng Liquor Forum she said, “Many taverns will just not recover from this. I can’t sleep thinking about all the poverty and unemployment I see around me daily. So many families depend on the incomes from legal alcohol trade to put food on the table and take their young ones to school.”

As someone who also earns a living from the legal trade of alcohol, I, like Mam’Fanny, fear for the 120,000 jobs supported by taverns and for the over 400,000 families dependent on the tavern economy.

The impacts of humanitarian crises are never gender-neutral, and COVID-19 is no exception. This is why I can’t help but feel so devastated for all the female tavern owners who had to work so hard to build their businesses despite the odds pitted against them.

While women are said to be the most vulnerable members of society, they are also touted as the most influential and powerful. Well, they may be strong, but we have a long way to go to improve the percentage and performance of women-owned businesses through interventions from much needed government policy updates all the way through to business coaching and funding. If we could ensure the third alcohol ban is indeed the very last, that would be a sensible start.

The pandemic has forced us to look at the future with caution while offering solutions that matter now and in the long-term. The beer industry’s value chain touches on so many sectors that are run by women-owned businesses - including farming, manufacturing, marketing, retail and hospitality.

Research has proven that the impacts of the pandemic are most severe on the poor and for women. Why women? Because the burden of caring for others generally falls on women. To add a little statistical perspective, according to a 2020 study by Rhodes University's Professor Michael Rogan in collaboration with University of Cape Town, women in the informal economy saw a decrease of 49% in the typical hours worked in April 2020 while men in informal employment only saw a 25% decrease in typical hours. For women in informal self-employment, typical earnings decreased by nearly 70% between February and April.

As the country embarks on an accelerated economic recovery plan, I challenge both private and public sector leaders to ensure that their recovery efforts absolutely must reach women. Where we can prioritise women receiving support - we should.

Ensuring we’re able to secure the livelihoods of our 18,900 female tavern owners has never been more important, but they aren’t the only ones who are at risk of losing their employment. Thousands more female farmers, craft brewers and restaurant owners will also benefit from balanced and responsible decision-making going forward. Ending the use of blanket alcohol bans, providing policy certainty and engaging meaningfully with business players both big and small is a good place to start. With three bans under our belt, surely our families, businesses and our communities have sacrificed enough.

Women form the backbone of our beer value chain and have been for many years. South Africa as we chart a way forward for our country, one that balances both lives and livelihoods – my humble ask is this: please don’t leave our women in beer behind.