A Dry State

29 Sep. 2020
South African bars faced a prohibition amidst the pandemic

Bars and restaurants throughout the world have been— and, unfortunately, are still — going through varying degrees of lockdown, restrictions and other impediments to ‘business as usual’. Few though have had to go through what South African bars went through: a full-on prohibition. You read that right: South Africa decided that for a while at least, you couldn’t get a drink, couldn’t buy a bottle anywhere. At all. We talked to a few local players to understand what went on there and learn more about the scene.

South Africa’s ‘Noble Experiment’
« We have had a mad lockdown in South Africa », explains Leah van Deventer, a writer and the World’s 50 Best Bars Academy Chair for the south of Africa. « From March, alcohol sales were completely prohibited for both on and off-consumption. » This prohibition lasted for five months — with a period in the middle where bars were briefly allowed to do take away or delivery. But why was such a radical step taken? According to Mike Stephenson, owner of Lucky Shaker in Durban, the government aimed to « ultimately reduce the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions in an attempt to ease pressure on our health system. » Meanwhile, there was no policy to ease pressure on the hospitality industry: « Throughout this whole period there has been very little support offered to us by the government with a very intermittent payment being received by staff and no support for the business, » adds Stephenson.

A rising scene
Bars in Africa have long been forgotten by international awards and lists. Before the pandemic, signs this was changing were multiplying, with South Africa leading the charge. Industry veteran Kurt Schlechter, recently named on Drinks International Bar World 100 (a list of the industry’s most influential figures), describes a scene with more and more bartender-owned bars, « which means a lot of attention to cocktails ». He is a good example of this, as the owner of Cape Town’s Cause Effect. Stephenson also underlines the impact bartender turned bar entrepreneurs have had. « It has seen our country become a definite future player on the global cocktail scene », he says. van Deventer names both Schlechter and Stephenson among the ones to watch, and adds Johannesburg’s Julian Short, from Sin+Tax. « What we lack in numbers of great bars, we make up for in quality, where the ones that excel can really hold their own against the best bars worldwide. This is largely due to the masterminds behind those bars, naturally, » she adds.

Survival first
Obviously, this exciting scene is under direct threat from the pandemic. And the 5-month long prohibition prevented bars from taking some of the mitigation measures taken by other bars worldwide. In the small window between the two longer dry periods, some bars tried their hands at delivery. At Lucky Shaker, Stephenson launched a pouch cocktail range. Still, « It was like trying to put a plaster on a bullet wound », according to van Deventer. Both Stephenson and Schlechter underline that good relationship with landlords, maintaining contact with regulars, cutting costs and diversifying revenue streams were key to survival. « The ones that made it did so largely because of their relationships with suppliers and landlords, » adds van Deventer. 

Try again
Bars are now open throughout South Africa. Capacity is limited, opening hours too. At Cause Effect, Schlechter is offering discounted experiences in their lab and discounted drinks thanks to the help of suppliers. « The response has been good, » he sums up. Next month they will launch a new menu — always a financial risk, but also a way to stand out — called A Field Guide to Mixed Drinks, Fynbos and Other Specimens of South Africa. Stephenson is also satisfied with the reopening. « So far the response has been really impressive. It has been great to see so many regulars & guests coming back and everyone is generally really grateful to be able to be out socialising again. » Both are however conscious the road is long, in particular in areas highly dependent on international travel. « The effects of this pandemic will be felt for quite a while in our industry as we will most likely expect a number of closures still to come along with some great talent leaving the country to try to pursue opportunities abroad, » says Stephenson. Schlechter remains sanguine: « I am sure that it will bounce back with some more bartender-owned bars ».

François Monti