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Illegal booze trade scores big via COVID-19 restrictions

Aug. 20, 2020 3 min read

3 min read

MASERU – While consumption of alcohol in public places is prohibited under the COVID-19 restrictions in Lesotho, selling it from backdoors has brought ample wealth to people who opted not to abide by the law.

With the sale of alcohol banned for over a month, the illegal booze trade has mushroomed with sky-rocketing prices. People who used to frequent shebeens in Maseru and Leribe say syndicates have stepped in and are charging excessive prices for conventional brands of alcohol. The alcohol ban was to allow police and the health sector to better focus on tackling the coronavirus, according to the National COVID-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) and security authorities.

Alcohol-fuelled violence and road accidents are a huge problem in Lesotho. Doctors and police say the ban has had a substantial impact, contributing to a sharp drop in casualty admissions in local hospitals and health centres. But the country's booze retailers argue that they are being driven out of business. Hence many decided to proceed with their business through a network operated from backdoors. 

“Honestly, I have made more money than ever. Beer is sold everywhere in the country from backdoors and consumers don’t mind the increased prices, as long as they have access to the alcohol. This brings in more profits than ever before,” explained a retailer who owns a tavern in Motimposo, Maseru. Asked why she had doubled her liquor prices, the woman who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal she remarked, “I’m taking a huge risk. I will have to pay a M10 000 fine should I get arrested and failing which, I will go to jail. Let’s just say the extra charge is meant to cover for security purposes that could include paying a bribe to the police.” Another illegal liquor trader Mohapi of Hleoheng in Leribe also echoed the sentiments of the Motimposo tavern owners.

“We are risk-takers who only strive to survive after restrictions were imposed on our alcohol selling businesses as part of measures to fight the COIVID-19 pandemic. Since these regulations were introduced, the rate of binge drinking has increased enormously throughout the country. People have money because they no longer buy clothes and other things that they don’t consider important now; hence they drink alcohol a lot. We have also managed to retain our employees via the backdoor business,” he said.

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 Last Saturday, a group of youths (boys and girls) carrying bags filled with alcoholic beverages, was spotted crossing the Mohokare river on the outskirts of Maputsoe. Before crossing into Ficksburg, South Africa, where they live, the youths had boasted that business is booming between the two zones parted by the unguarded river borderline.“For example, we buy a 750ml bottle of beer for M20 from a secret source (termed sekoti) in Lesotho and sell it for M40 in Ficksburg. Sometimes we cross the river twice a day to fetch alcohol through backdoors in Lesotho because we often run out of stock.

“Our customers are thirsty and they don’t hesitate to pay any amount to get their hands on these beer bottles,” said a youth who appeared to spearhead the operation. The incident occurred a few days before South Africa lifted the ban on alcohol and cigarette sale.

Those who cannot afford the ridiculously high street prices have resorted to brewing their own liquor at home and selling it. Pineapples and sorghum are the common ingredients used for the home-brewed beer. Hence, most people are now making a living from the homebrew and produce buckets of alcohol in several communities.

“People will always drink alcohol whether the regulations are imposed or lifted. What we have to do seriously is observe social distancing instead and not destroy our flailing economy. I have resorted to drinking homemade booze because it is much cheaper and affordable,” said a professional teacher from one famed high school in Maputsoe.

Last week's reports showed that the government has also, by this far, lost a fortune of about M45 million in tax revenue due to the ban on alcohol trade in Lesotho.

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