The Shebeen Issue Needs a Pragmatic Approach

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The debate around shebeens provides an amazing cocktail of the good and the bad. It threatens to divide our people, particularly the haves and the have-nots, those who believe that moral laxity has crept in and the realists who argue that survival through whatever way short of breaking the law is paramount and is a God given right. At stake is not whether or not these watering holes are a desirable venture. Rather, the argument centres around whether imposing stringent conditions on structural conditions for shebeens is realistic in this era of economic hardship, taking into account that those venturing into this sort of business are mainly the poor. So also is the disposal of goods seized through police raids. Put differently, does it make sense to require every shebeen owner to construct concrete walls and to provide two toilets built with similar materials when the very people can hardly afford a one-bedroom house made of bricks and instead live in shacks constructed with cardboard boxes or roofing materials? To answer our own question, we think it does not. And this requires that we revisit the way our lawmakers go about the business of making legislation. It is paramount that Namibians are informed about how our legislative process works right from conceptualisation to drafting and passage of the law. One of the basic tenets of democracy is consultation. The fact that legislators are elected by popular vote does not take away the right of the electorate to be consulted at every stage when decisions are taken in their name. The mandate to rule is no carte blanche for legislators to decide without regular consultations with the people on issues of a bread-and-butter nature that affect them directly. The current impasse on the issue suggests that there were no substantive and proper consultations between the affected sector and those who legislated. If there were, then this may as well just have been by way of passing on information because how else does one explain why all of a sudden there is an uproar over a law that stakeholders should have agreed upon from the very beginning? It is our humble submission that lawmakers need to make time for the different communities and constituencies and consult them on planned laws on a regular basis. True, that things would have been different under a direct representation electoral system where people elect their representatives to parliament directly. But even under the current system, things could be done differently if legislators make it their business to constantly engage their constituencies before passing laws so that misunderstandings can be ironed out before laws are eventually enacted. Shebeen owners would probably have convinced the lawmakers not to include some of the contested clauses in the Liquor Act of 2002 if they had been given the opportunity from the beginning. Laws should be a product of consultation and not imposed from above, even though the legislators have the mandate to pass laws on behalf of citizens by virtue of having been democratically and popularly elected by the nation. Laws also need to be thoroughly researched, and their social and economic implications and consequences properly weighed before they are passed in the National Assembly. Otherwise it makes a mockery of our legislative system to pass laws that are aborted before actual implementation, or amended within a year or two. Enacting rushed laws that cannot stand the test of time is logically not the way to go. Similarly, laws should seek to improve the lives of the people and help them develop, and not stifle and suppress their potential to grow economically and in social status. There are many examples of rags-to-riches stories of people who have graduated from poverty today, after starting off humbly as small shebeen owners. Even among some of our top brass, there are those who owe their escalation up the economic ladder to this business. Some still earn income by selling liquor. The problems posed by this sector should be addressed differently and proper solutions found. Curtailing the growth of this informal sector altogether would adversely affect the lives of so many people. Shebeens not only generate income for the owners but also are important social gathering places where people congregate to socialise, make friendships and share experiences on matters of life and death. They provide a livelihood for many through jobs. They also provide relief by way of providing goods to regular patrons on account when one has no money. The patrons get their drink while the shebeen owner gets money at the end of the month. That way, everybody is happy. They are also closer to home and those who frequent them save on transport costs. Lest we forget, many shebeens also offer edibles like chips, roasted meat, sausages, boiled eggs, goat heads, you name them. They also serve as an important place for social interaction. In other words, some of these outlets are not just mere drinking joints. They offer alternative restaurant services in areas where no such services exist. Shebeens could be graded so that the higher grades are required to meet certain standards, while the lower ones would have less, instead of being lumped together. Granted, shebeens may be serving as breeding grounds for alcohol abuse because alcohol is easily available. Most of the times, alcohol is also cheaper there than at some of the renowned places such as hotels. But we have to find alternative ways of dealing with fighting alcoholism by educating and eliminating poverty among our people. We have to teach our people to drink responsibly. Beer drinking is an old tradition that cannot be uprooted altogether. The authorities have to commission a proper study of the business of shebeens, the pros and cons before seeking to regulate them. The approach to this rather complex issue should be soft and gradual. The alternative is a quick fix that might have undesirable effects.