5e118b3bea92.jpgYesterday was a public holiday to mark the contribution that young people have made in shaping our country. It was also the day when our national soccer team played its second game in the FIFA Soccer World Cup. And many of us saw several young people getting drunk to celebrate both these occasions. But this did not start only yesterday.

‘€œOur history, obviously, plays into how people drink’€¦ where we come from’€¦ the whole issue around apartheid and how people’€™s lives were restricted. We’€™ve got all these dormitory suburbs in big cities, like in Soweto where there were no facilities for recreation built. There’€™s a lot of structural ways that have pushed people, especially young people, to two things that they can afford and can do, and that’€™s drinking and having sex. And I think that we need to be thinking as a society about other structural ways to change that. The other side of it also is that, of course, the liquor industry in order to survive needs to sell more alcohol’€, says Dr Sue Goldstein, Chief Executive Officer of the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication.

This environment makes it easy for alcohol to find a niche with young people.

‘€œJust like with sex and cigarettes before, alcohol is promoted as the way to socialise. It’€™s the way to be cool’€, says Adielah Maker, Soul City’€™s executive for social mobilisation.

Recently, civil society group Sonke Gender Justice Network took beer company South African Breweries to task and lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa over the SAB’€™s advert promoting Carling Black Label beer. Sonke believed that the ad, which promoted the Carling Black Label’€™s biggest 750 ml bottle, was targeted at young men and was promoting false identities of manhood with its pay-off line, which asked: ‘€œGroot man of laaitie?’€, which means: Are you a big man or a small boy?

‘€œIt cannot simply be taken for granted that it’€™s just business as usual, we are just advertising alcohol. It has serious implications on how people relate and we have lots of examples of that. In South Africa, people fight over a parking space in a mall. Now you can imagine when you factor in alcohol and calling somebody a ‘€œlaaitie’€ is a major issue for men. It’€™s about superiority because it says ‘€œif I’€™m a laaitie, then you are a groot man’€. It’€™s not even about age now. It’€™s about superiority in the pure sense of the word. Now, if you are respected because you can drink a lot of beer’€¦ simply because of that, you qualify to be a groot man, then we have a major problem’€, says Bafana Khumalo, Sonke Gender Justice Network’€™s co-director.          

Rigorous promotion of alcohol is followed by easy access. Lack of strict legal control measures make it easy for shebeens and taverns to operate near schools and churches and some of these establishments make their money by selling to youngsters. But they are not the only ones to blame.  

‘€œAdults are colluding because adults are buying the alcohol for them. If they go into a shop, either the shop or wherever they get the liquor, they are selling it to under-age people. At my children’€™s school, when they were small, some of the parents actually bought the alcohol on behalf of the children’€, according to Goldstein.

Too much alcohol is often followed by sexual arousal and curiosity in young people.  

‘€œAlcohol definitely lowers your inhibitions. The way you think through what you do is with less caution. There’€™s a lot of unsafe sex that happens when people have too much to drink. There’€™s also a lot of bravado that happens when you have alcohol where young men feel more able to walk up to a girl, but also, he will feel more easily able to coerce somebody’€, say Maker.

‘€œYoung women who get drunk are victims very often’€¦ and you’€™re making oneself vulnerable through being less aware, through being confused, through having too much alcohol and, sometimes, people even black out and they don’€™t even remember what they’€™ve done. They wake up the next morning and they don’€™t know how they got home, they don’€™t know what happened the night before, and they may well have had unsafe sex and, in South Africa, expose themselves to HIV’€, adds Goldstein.

Drinking is one of the leading causes of unsafe sex and its attendant risks of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. But government is doing little to address the risk.