Every December, scores of township churches in South Africa convert into beer pubs, underscoring the underbelly of dire alcohol abuse tearing apart the social fabric of South Africa.
Township churches becoming beer taverns just for December is a common phenomenon across South Africa, socialite Ori Netshipale reminded thousands of his followers this week.
“Township” in South Africa refers to underdeveloped urban slums mainly populated by millions of Blacks, and “tavern” means pub in the local lingo.
“It’s a means to achieve two tricky things at once,” said Pastor Willard Mcena, who runs a 150-strong African Independent Zion Christian Church in Seshego Township, 324 kilometers away from Johannesburg, the country’s commercial capital. “It might be unusual to the rest of the world to hear that in South Africa some churches convert to part-time pubs just in December, but we have unique problems here.”
The purpose of temporarily refitting churches into pubs, Mcena explained, allows underage drinkers (church members) to drink in “safe limits” under church observation. Second, money-squeezed township churches get a boost from the December surge in alcohol sales and consumption.
South Africa has one of the world’s most dire alcohol abuse rates on earth, as per expert data. The U.S. National Institute for Health said in 2017 that South Africa has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption globally, and alcohol consumption per capita has risen over the last 10 year and “plays a role in about half of all non-natural deaths.”
In South Africa, alcohol is involved in 75% of homicides, 60% of automobile accidents and 24% of vehicular deaths and injuries, the data show.
Charles Parry, director of South Africa Medical Research Council, mourns the “alcohol nightmare” as out of the 2.2 million trauma cases in the country each year, 40% are alcohol related.
This is fed by two contrasting realities: While South Africa has the world’s highest rates of youth unemployment, its beer prices are considered the world’s cheapest.
“We have a dark love affair with alcohol here in South Africa.”
“We have a dark love affair with alcohol here in South Africa — hence even underage Christians as young as 16 drink,” Mcena said. “It is worse at Christmas, so I convert the backroom of my church so that members of my congregation can drink socially, gather and sensibly and not overindulge after church services. That way we reduce alcohol-related trauma. It’s better that way.”
It’s not unusual at all to see a Catholic or Anglican or any denomination priest smoking in the churchyard or having a beer soon after Sunday service, said Brian Simoyi, an ex-Anglican deacon who now runs his own 120-seat Jack of Nation Africa Church in Diesploot Township, Johannesburg. “I learned relaxed attitudes to beer, Bible and churches seeing my ex-Anglican priest light a cigarette in the churchyard at the end of every Sunday afternoon service.”
Money has been hard to come by from his church members in the last three years due to South Africa’s dire unemployment crisis, he added. “So every December, when people have bonuses from their salaries, we buy alcohol from wholesalers in bulk, sell for a profit after weekend services and allow church members to have a calm drink. We earn more at that time. It’s opportunistic, but it works.”
In the last 10 years, so-called “beer churches” have sprung up around South Africa and gained massive popularity and members. “Beer churches” are churches where open drinking during and after services is tolerated and may be the main focus apart from the gospel, said Nono Simelane, an independent sociologist studying church behavior in Johannesburg. “But I am ashamed that us, South Africa, as nation, we have failed to curb our excessive alcohol abuse scourge that we now think it’s normal to mix religion and alcohol. It’s a failure of society.”
South Africa’s government has tried to raise “sin tax” rates on beer and tobacco as a way of curbing the vice of cheap alcohol, but the country’s beer industry is wealthy, influential and embedded in society.
“A little drink among worshippers relaxed in the churchyard after Christmas service is no fuss,” Pastor Mcena said. “It’s good money too, beer sales.”