Cape Town, South Africa
As part of the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has imposed a ban on the sale of liquor and cigarettes. As opposition to the ban continues to brew from citizens and groups representing the liquor industry, the President extended the ban until the end of April.
In announcing the original ban on the prohibition of the sale of liquor the President noted that the consumption of alcohol causes many problems that would further stretch the capacity limits of the hospital system. In a statement from the President’s office after the ban was extended, he reiterated his reasons for banning the sale of alcohol. The statement read in part, “There are proven links between the sale and consumption of alcohol and violent crime, motor vehicle accidents and other medical emergencies at a time when all public and private resources should be preparing to receive and treat vast numbers of COVID-19 patients,”
No country is more familiar with the effects of Liquor Prohibition than the United States (US). The United States Liquor Prohibition lasted from 1920-1933. During these 13 years, the US demand for liquor was filled by bootleggers who produced fake alcohol in a variety of ways including mixing methanol with flavorings and food colorings. In the beginning many independent bootleggers filled the void for the prohibited liquor. The immense profits in the fake alcohol business soon attracted organized crime. Not satisfied with the enormous profit margins made from producing counterfeit alcohol, the gangs resorted to murder and arson to eliminate the competition.
Organized crime syndicates became so flush with cash during Prohibition that they soon bought off law enforcement and politicians with bribes and threats. The power and wealth that organized crime attained during the Prohibition of 1920-1933 ensured their place in US society till this day.
Law enforcement officials in other African nations have consistently pointed to South Africa as the hub of illegal alcohol that plagues their countries even before the official Prohibition instituted on March 27th in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the Prohibition, which is not even a month old, South African law enforcement is getting a firsthand glimpse of the extent of the illegal alcohol trade that proliferates within its borders.
Suspect Arrested for Fake Smirnoff Vodka
On Sunday April 19, 2020, a 50-year-old suspect was arrested for refilling Smirnoff 1818 bottles with laced fake alcohol. The suspect was mixing rubbing alcohol with water to mimic the popular Smirnoff brand. This was a home operation where the police confiscated 196 empty 750ml bottles, 45 filled bottles, 100 liters of pure ethanol rubbing alcohol as well as a bag filled with fake Smirnoff closures and labels.
The suspect was charged under the Contravening Disaster Management Act, manufacturing and selling counterfeit alcohol and selling counterfeit liquor during lockdown. In announcing the arrest, Nomusa Dube-Ncube of the KwaZulu-Natal Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs MEC credited law enforcement with their diligence in pursuing the investigation and making the arrest.
The Ongoing Battle Against Counterfeit Liquor in South Africa
Enforcement authorities are keeping a close watch for anyone breaking the lockdown mandates, so bootleggers transporting liquors are easier to track. However, in some regions of the nation, police are rumored to be protecting and even providing security for the counterfeit alcohol trade.
Police Minister Bheki Cele noted that the challenges of enforcing the liquor ban is a labor-intensive task. Many legal liquor stores have been looted with their products being sold interspersed with counterfeited liquor on street corners, from homes and legal businesses such as hair salons and food markets. Most discouraging to the Chief is when police officers are arrested facilitating the bootleggers as well as the looters. “This is what has happened… we have arrested our own police who were working with the manager in organizing the looting.”, he noted. He also discussed the arrest of two SAPS officers in Mpumalanga, who were escorting a convoy of trucks transporting illicit liquor. Acting police Brigadier Mathapelo Peters has confirmed that “Cele’s concerns surrounding the looting of bottle stores and collusion with law enforcement called for serious intervention.”
The Chief seeming a bit overwhelmed himself, said that all enforcement agencies are being stretched to the limits. Officers need to be assigned to guard bottle stores that have not been looted, search markets, patrol for street corner sales as well as respond to tips about the new proliferation of beer being made in kitchens and sold in backyards. Police Minister Bheki Cele is learning firsthand what it was like to try and enforce Prohibition in the early 1920’s in the US.
Along with neighborhood violations that range from individual selling homemade brew and a handful of looted and fake liquor bottles, Police operations are using larger amounts of personnel to target the bootleg gangs that have used South Africa as their base of operations for many years. Now with the lockdown they may be easier to find and investigate, or because of the lockdown Police are now seeing the extent of the bootlegging problem throughout the nation.
Police in Mandawe, identified, investigated, and broke up a large fake alcohol producing facility that was producing various whiskey, brandy, vodka, and gin brands on an Easter weekend raid. As all the suspects have not yet been rounded up, national authorities are tight lipped on revealing the volume involved other than to say it was “substantial”. Local Police said as their part of the raid they seized, 1500 liters of “pure” alcohol, there was no indication given if it was methanol or ethanol, along with 280 filled liquor bottles and 3400 empty bottles. One official noted that, ““If sold at normal retail price, the total finished products would have a retail value of R500 000”
With legal liquor sales halted, the South African Liquor Brandowners Association (SALBA) has been unusually vocal about the scourge of fake alcohol that competes with them year-round. Commenting on the raid in Mandawe, Sibani Mngadi, a spokesperson for the SALBA said, ““Our view is that criminal syndicates have found a gap in the market with the prohibition of formal sale of alcoholic beverages. The value of R500 000 is a conservative estimate had those counterfeit brands been sold at their normal retail prices. But we know that with current high consumer demand, prices in the illicit market have skyrocketed,”
“The refilling of branded bottles with counterfeit liquid is having a major negative impact on consumer perception of our brands. It is therefore in both our commercial and public health interest to assist the police curbing this criminal activity,” Mngadi continued. Refilling branded liquor bottles is one part of the illicit alcohol trade. The larger problem is when fake alcohol producers use counterfeited branded bottles, labels, and caps and fill those bottles with concoctions that contain deadly methanol and industrial chemicals.
Now that the impact of the illicit trade is in the spotlight, the SALBA are beginning to take notice of the size of the fake alcohol industry in South Africa. Law enforcement in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Kenya, and other nations have long claimed that the fake alcohol that crosses their borders originates from South African bootleggers but have been ignored.
When the temporary Prohibition ends and the world gets back to normal, the South African Police may have learned some valuable lessons concerning the extent of the bootleg alcohol trade in South Africa. It is an illicit industry that pushes poison in name brand bottles from high end imports to popular local brands at home and abroad.
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