I’ve lived in South Africa for almost eight years and Cape Town is very much my home. I’ve set down roots here, I’ve made friends here and I love living here. But there are some things that, as a foreigner, I will probably never ‘get’: why anyone would voluntarily eat a skilpadjie, why Jack Parow is considered humorous…and why the hell you can’t buy a beer in a South African supermarket.
Man it drives me nuts. I’m braving the aisles of Pick ‘n’ Pay, being trailed by a four-year-old (mine, by the way) who is either placing random boxes of rainbow cookies and antibacterial sponges into the trolley while I’m not looking, or is screaming “I don’t love you mummy, I’m going to give you a bag of poopy for Christmas” because I said no to a cheapo toy that would likely break before we got out of the car park (yes, this is a true story). By the time I’ve paid, I just want to go home, but I still have to manoeuvre the trolley – and the child – to the closest liquor store and hope that if he knocks anything off the shelf, it’s nothing more serious than a bottle of Obies. If I was a wine drinker, I could have been in the car by now, chilling to some Rick Astley. But I drink beer and therefore am not allowed to buy my booze of choice in the supermarket.
So why is this? Well, in the Western Cape at least, it is against the law to serve any alcohol in a supermarket other than ‘table wine.’ The reason for this is unclear and despite making a fair few calls and sending several emails, I never found a proper answer. Oddly, I thought, nobody seems to have written about it before, save for a few bemused souls on a Yahoo Answers thread, who came to the conclusion that “wine isn’t really classed as alcohol in South Africa”. Well that doesn’t seem quite right. I’ve also often heard it said that wine is considered an agricultural product, and beer isn’t, so only wine is allowed to be sold in supermarkets. This likewise sounds like nonsense – for god’s sake they sell knock-off Twinkies in Pick ‘n’ Pay and I can tell you that your average bottle of craft beer has a lot more to do with agriculture than a “Tinkie” does.
I was beginning to wonder if there was some sinister ‘wine lobby’ reason that beer is excluded from the grocery licence – some turf war that has been happening for centuries. Then I was told to chat to the folk at Kanonkop, a wine estate outside Stellenbosch. Owner Johann Krige told me that wine finding its way into supermarkets was largely down to his grandfather, Paul Sauer, who had nothing at all against beer, but was simply campaigning for wine to be sold in supermarkets. “As I have it, my grandfather was instrumental in changing legislation so that grocers could also sell wine,” Johann says. “The logic was that wine serves food and food serves wine. Hence there was no place for beer or spirits, unlike we find today.”
You see, craft beer wasn’t a thing back then and this piece of legislation has simply remained untouched in the 2008 Western Cape Liquor Act, under section 49(4):
The licensee of premises upon which the business of a retail food store is carried on, may not sell liquor other than table wine.
So is it simply that no one ever thought to amend this law, or could there be more to it? I contacted SAB and asked why they thought beer wasn’t allowed to be sold in grocery stores and whether they’ve ever lobbied to change it, but they simply said: “This was an issue when retailers held only grocer’s licences which limited sale to wine only. Today, most big retailers operate their own off-licence liquor stores.”
I know the liquor stores are usually a short walk from the main grocery store, but it still irritates me that wine drinkers can do a one-stop shop and beer drinkers can’t. It somehow seems discriminatory – so what can we do about it?
Beer the change
Liquor laws can be changed. They’re often changed, although admittedly, it’s rarely to make the purchase of alcohol – or the life of a beer enthusiast – easier. I asked around and was given the protocol for requesting an amendment to the law. It’s fairly simple, so if you feel like making a fuss; like standing up and saying “hey – beer drinkers are people too, and we want to buy beer with our bread and bacon and boxes of rainbow cookies!” then here’s what you need to do: Get in touch with Waseem Matthews, the Committee Coordinator for the Standing Committee on Community Safety and tell him you would like to petition to change section 49(4) of the Western Cape Liquor Act (2008). You can call him on 021 487 1741 or email him at email@example.com. The more people who email or call, the better the chance of getting our beloved beer into grocery stores – though be sure to keep it cheery and pleasant when you call. Y’know – keep it beer.
UPDATE: Simply head to www.letusbuybeer.co.za, fill in the form and it will automatically send your request directly to the liquor board.
Of course, that’s just the Western Cape – a similar process would have to be followed in each province and I would love to hear from anyone happy to take the lead elsewhere in the country. But changing the law is just the first step. I chatted to Nigel Fortune from the Western Cape Liquor Authority, about the second step. He was unsure of the legal aspects, stating that “There’s nothing in the legislation that says licence holders can’t amend or request to amend their licence,” he said but added that as each grocery store has its own separate liquor licence, “each individual store would have to amend their own licence – there could not be a blanket change as the licences have already been issued”. He conjectured that the main hurdle for store owners would be real estate – finding the space on the shop floor for the beer to be displayed. That and the status quo – supermarkets have never sold beer, so they simply don’t sell beer.
But beer has changed in South Africa and I think it’s about time the grocery stores caught up. Of course, we do have our work cut out. Recent proposals regarding liquor law amendments have included the phasing out of grocer’s wine licences for stores within 50m of a liquor store. To me this makes no sense whatsoever. I cannot understand how this in any way promotes responsible drinking – am I missing something? Surely buying food with your booze can only be good for you?
I’m not going to lie to you – this whole thing is a long shot. First you have to change the law, and then you have to change the minds of every individual supermarket in the country… Perhaps the best place to start is to chat to your local brewer to ask them how they would feel about having their beer on the shelves of a supermarket – the few I’ve spoken to, particularly those that are already in the larger liquor stores, have said it could only be a huge boost to their business. So let’s let the stores know how we feel – get onto social media and tell Pick ‘n’ Pay, Woolies, Shoprite, Spar and Checkers to #letusbuybeer. Petition your local liquor board and campaign for equal rights for beer drinkers – and for the opportunity to let small businesses grow.
And if all that sounds like incredibly hard work, well let’s at least open an APA and question why beer was excluded from the legislation when it was first written and why, it seems, nobody has ever been interested in changing that. Let’s start a conversation. And yes, that conversation can also include your defence of skilpadjies and Jack Parow, if you feel you must.