One in 10 deaths in South Africa is associated with alcohol use. Of those who consume alcohol, half of men and a third of women binge drink. Alcohol consumption is such a widespread issue in the country, that during the COVID-19 lockdown there was a complete ban on alcohol sales to reduce alcohol-related traumas and free up much-needed space and capacity in health facilities. The ban successfully reduced 60-70% of alcohol-related trauma visits to hospitals. 

Like the rest of the country, our community experiences excessive alcohol consumption and the many harms that come with it. But in 2011, our community was fed up with alcohol-fuelled violence and decided to do something radical: close shebeens (local taverns) and prohibit the sale of alcohol at 7pm, every evening

Making and drinking umqombothi (fermented maize) is an integral part of the Xhosa tradition. Almost all ceremonies are marked with the consumption of umqombothi— which has much lower alcohol content than bottled beer and is not associated with public drunkenness. 

However, a rise in excessive consumption of bottled beer and spirits has led to many issues. Most notably, there were many violent crimes due to knife fights at shebeens and the curfew almost immediately reduced fatal fights. 

The alcohol curfew was unusual because it was not enforced by the government but by our community. Now, over ten years later, the curfew is still in place. 

But binge drinking culture continues to keep its hold on many people in our community. 

The harms of excessive alcohol use in our community also lead to overspending money, gender-based violence, increased risk of disease transmission (specifically HIV) and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Infidelity increases when drinking and can fracture family relationships and even hurt greater community cohesiveness. 

Teenagers are twice as likely to get drunk if they have seen their parents under the influence. The prevalence of binge drinking exposes our children and youth to harmful drinking norms. Increasing the risk of these behaviours perpetuating.

While the binge alcohol culture must be addressed, excessive drinking and alcohol harms are the symptoms of much deeper issues that people in our community face— the issue is complex. 

How Bulungula Incubator is reducing alcohol harms

On Bulungula Community Radio, we discuss monthly topics concerning our community and have created different campaigns around alcohol harms, including a rap/talent competition about carrying a weapon while drinking. We also host sporting events and tournaments on public holidays (generally associated with drinking alcohol) to attract youth— keeping them engaged in exciting activities and away from the shebeens. 

BCR monthly theme invite to disucss carrying a weapon.

Thatha iLiza, Bulungula’s surf-therapy team, focuses on mental and emotional health and well-being. The programme uses surfing to bring youth together in a structured and fun environment while actively creating a safe space for participants to feel comfortable and supported. The team practices a “Take 5” meditation before each session, a technique focusing on the breath for emotional regulation. 

Thatha iLiza surfer meditating before lesson.

Our Nomakhayas (home-based carers) closely monitor and document the health of our community. They support pregnant mothers and educate them about the dangers of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. 

Nomakhayas have tremendously close and trusting relationships with their patients since they visit them daily in the comfort of their homes. They provide consistent care and emotional support to their patients, and can notify our Health Programme manager if they observe any concerning or atypical behaviours that may need further medical support.

Nomakhaya with community member during routine home visit.

The highest paying jobs available in our community are at the Bulungula Lodge, BI, Spaza shops, and shebeens. With an 87% unemployment rate in our area, people are desperate to earn an income, and it is a lucrative business to open a shebeen.

The Job Skills and Entrepreneurship Programme focuses on out-of-school youth and equips them with the necessary knowledge, skill, certification and experience to create productive careers. The hope is that graduates from the programme will create more businesses in the community. These businesses will not only boost the local economy and keep skilled workers in the community but they will also model what kind of businesses can viably exist in our area.

JSEP graduate car wash business.

People are not opening shebeens because it is their dream job or what they’re skilled at, they’re opening shebeens because it is one of the most profitable local business models. Our JSEP learners will introduce new and fresh ideas, expanding businesses that will enhance community life. 

Reducing alcohol harms takes different and creative interventions. We will continue to explore options and projects that we can implement to best support our community.