No under-21’s?

Cream soda only for next year’s Freshers’ bash? Pheladi Sethusa, a second year Media Studies student, discusses recent government plans to increase the legal drinking age.

Last week I saw a news report on the planned change of the legal drinking age in South Africa. The proposed legislation states that the legal drinking age will be moved up from 18 to 21. Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini said that they hoped that this change would help in the fight against not only alcohol and drug abuse in South Africa, but also the fight against crime. 

Myself at Matric Vac in 2009. That was really just colourful water ;)
Myself at Matric Vac in 2009. That was really just colourful water 😉

As we all know, crime is a huge problem in our country and many violent crimes are connected to drug and alcohol abuse result in domestic violence, robberies and assault. The minister also made the point that currently South Africa holds the record for the highest binge drinking among its youth. Binge drinking can be fatal in relation to one’s health, which is why the government feels that this social ill needs to be alleviated in any way possible. Changing the legal drinking age is one way of doing that.

I agree that alcohol abuse is a major contributor when it comes to the aforementioned issues but I believe that it is not the root of the problem. There are stringent laws concerning narcotics in our country but yet that does not stop the drug industry growing from year to year. This is undoubtedly a result of fraudulent and incompetent policing. At the moment, minors can access alcohol fairly easily in spite of the current legal drinking age. I understand that this change of legislature is the only one which looks likely to curb alcohol abuse among the youth but I fear that it may not be enough. I also think that it is unfair to accuse people in the 18-21 age bracket as being responsible for most of the alleged alcohol-related crimes in our country.

Along with my belief that this change will be ineffective, I also believe that this change may prove detrimental to the whole varsity experience and what I would call the-coming-of-age experience. The latter refers to what turning 18 means to myself and most South African youths.

When we turn 18 we are allowed to vote in national elections, drive and legally consume alcohol. Now while the last point seems the least important it is pivotal in the transition to adulthood. Matric dances, 18th birthday parties and most importantly Matric Vac would not be the same without the choice to indulge in alcohol. My matric year would have been rather dull without the alcohol component.

Some are of the view that you do not need to drink to make an event more enjoyable and to some extent I agree but it is a personal preference you should be allowed to make, considering that you are now a young adult who can make informed decisions. With regards to the varsity experience, I think the freedom of choice that comes with entering the varsity world would be severely hindered. Imagine the Wits Orientation Week events and parties without alcohol. No more beer garden and silly buggers vodka parties. Not to mention the Freshers’ bash – somehow a cream soda on the rocks does not quite scream bash.

Personally I feel the proposed change in the legal drinking age will be ineffectual in decreasing overall alcohol consumption amongst young adults as well as decreasing crime statistics. It is a step in the right direction but South Africa needs far more than that. The government needs to look at why people are drinking so much in the first place. Is it purely recreational or are people drinking and using drugs to escape their problems? Such problems may include poverty, unemployment and perhaps even stress. For me this legislation is similar to prescribing someone with tuberculosis normal cough mixture and hoping that that will help.

The ardent drinker in me feels that this law will have a negative effect on after school life and will deprive many of the experiences that come with leaving high school. It would rob youngsters of a formative experience. How can we be trusted with electing a party who will have sovereign power over our lives but not with when and how much we drink? There seems to be a disjuncture between the two, or is it just me?

**NOTE: Post first appeared on exPress imPress on March 23 2011. 

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