Liquor Law Changes

Wednesday, 3 November, 2010
John Ford
The news that the City of Cape Town is doing an about turn on the draconian changes to the City's liquor regulations is welcome, even if the changes do not go as far as they should.
The city will make amendments to the new Liquor Trading Days and Hours by-law which was approved on July 28th this year. This change will allow hotels such as the Mount Nelson, the Vineyard and the Winchester Mansions to sell wine and other alcoholic drinks until 2am. However, they will not be allowed to sell these drinks between 2am and 11am. So, champagne breakfasts are still out of the question.

There is still a strong case for applying the same change to restaurants and pubs which are not connected to hotels and are in residential areas. Wine retailers will be forced to close their doors at 6pm, instead of the current 8pm, which will take away a significant portion of their turnover, because it will effectively shut out the customers who wish to pick up a bottle or two on their way home from work. Additionally, retailers likes Vaughan Johnson and Caroline Rillema in the V&A Waterfront will have their Sunday trade taken away, having won the right to this trade in the early days of the Waterfront. It should be noted that both of these merchants sell wines which are targeted at the gourmet end of the market, where consumption tends to be responsible.

There will be a negative effect on tourism as well. Wine farms may not sell wine before 11am. If tour clients are picked up by their guide at 9am from a hotel like the Vineyard or Steenberg, to be taken on a wine tour, what is the guide going to do with them for the nearly two hours before 11am? Sunday tours will also become impossible if wine farms are not allowed to sell their product on Sundays. One by-product of the new legislation is bound to be unemployment.

The law as it stood would have had severe consequences for several of the city's top hotels and for the very important tourism industry. Any hotel which is in an area zoned "residential" would have been forbidden to sell any alcoholic beverages between 11pm and 11 am. If they were to sell any liquor during those hours, the responsible person would be subject to a fine up to R30 000, a three year prison sentence or both. Establishments in areas zoned for business may trade between 11am and 2am. If the trading hours provision had not been changed, hotels in residential areas would have had to apply for rezoning. Months could pass before approval was granted, and the application would be subject to challenges by neighbours or opposition from the Council. The Mount Nelson's management has said that they would have been forced to retrench staff because its conferencing and banqueting facilities would not have been suitable.

The reasons given for the shortening of liquor trading hours are that the Council wants to lessen liquor abuse, noise pollution, hooliganism and public disturbances, and to crack down on shebeens and other establishments selling liquor without a licence. However, Fedhasa (the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa) has stated that creating new liquor laws will do little to solve these problems.

Councillor Taki Amira, head of the city's liquor task team, addressed the Western Cape Provincial Liquor Conference at the weekend. He acknowledged that the city had erred in its trading hours provision when it drew up the Provincial Liquor Amendment Bill, which will become law before the New Year.

Amira said that Fedhasa's (Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa) Cape branch made authorities aware of the flaw that would have affected their businesses. Fedhasa has previously referred to the by-law as "draconian" and "verkrampte". He admitted that the Council erred because they were under the impression that hotels were zoned as business, and said that they didn't know that this anomaly existed. He criticised the hospitality industry for only making noises after the law had been passed by council. Whether this criticism is justified is debatable, because doubts and concerns have been expressed very publicly by members of the industry since the proposed changes were first announced.

One remembers that there was a law in Australia, introduced for similar reasons to those above, which made pubs close at evening rush hour time. It resulted in bar patrons rushing to get to the pub before closing time and ordering huge quantities of beer, which was supplied in crates of glasses, so that drinking could continue after closing time. The increase in binge drinking eventually caused the law to be scrapped. Stringent penalties for drunken driving were far more effective in controlling consumption.

The fact is that this is a bad law which was not properly thought through. It will have minimal effect on liquor outlets which operate illegally and cause a nuisance, and will restrict the operations of hotels and restaurants which do not disturb the peace or break the law. In addition to the philosophy behind the changes to the law, there is also the reality that we do not have a great history of successfully policing the law as it existed in the past. There is a real danger that this situation will not change and that the new law will simply focus the attention of the police onto the easy targets, legitimate businesses which trade outside the prescribed hours, and that the difficult targets, shebeens, etc. will continue to trade unhindered.

The hotels, restaurants, pubs, liquor stores and wine farms affected by this legislation are all in areas which have been zoned residential or commercial by the Council. Most of the illicit outlets which the legislation purports to control are in formal and informal townships on the Cape Flats. A significant number of shebeen operators has applied for licences and for membership of Fedhasa. The townships do not appear to have the zoning of the traditionally "white" suburbs. Because of this they have not been able to obtain licences. This alone makes the legislation seriously flawed if not completely pointless.

There is a distinct possibility that businesses which will suffer losses will take legal action against the Council, which could prove very costly. Hopefully, this action will not be necessary. There is still time for the Council further to amend the legislation and one hopes that they will.