TOURISM in the area could be seriously harmed if proposed changes to the provincial liquor act are adopted, according to stakeholders at a public participation meeting, held at the Port Alfred Civic Centre on Tuesday.
Proposed changes included raising the legal drinking age to 21, and closing all liquor outlets at the end of stated trading hours, rather than allowing time for customers to finish their drinks.
"Tourism is the main industry in the area,” said manager of the Highlander Pub and Grill, Warwick Steane. "Allowing customers to order their last drinks and then giving them time to finish them could be the difference between making a profit or not.”
About 80 stakeholders, representing tavern owners, restaurateurs and other interested parties throughout Ndlambe, from Alexandria to the Fish River, made comments and suggestions at the meeting, and the mood remained calm despite their concerns.
Together with a dozen police officers and members of the provincial government, the problems of the existing act were explored, inconsistencies were pointed out, and clarity was requested on certain issues.
The public hearings have been conducted all around the province over the last few months, and a report to the premier is due to be tabled early in August.
"We are here to gather information and comments regarding what should be included in a new provincial liquor act. We will then take this information into account when we compile the report to the premier, and feed this back to stakeholders before the final act is confirmed,” said Neil Naidoo, of provincial safety and liaison.
Provincial secretary of the community protection services board, Glen Gqweta, said that the abuse of alcohol is responsible, in some way, in about 80% of the criminal cases in the region
"It (alcohol abuse) is responsible for many of the rapes, beatings and ever murders in the region. We want to get the suggestions on how to make the environment safer for everyone, and will hear from stakeholders first, and then allow the police to make comments.”
Taking comments from the floor, Gqweti asked for proposed solutions to make the new liquor act work more effectively.
Stakeholders expressed concern at the inconsistency of the current act, suggesting the police used their own interpretation when applying the law.
A theme throughout the meeting was the possibility of raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, a suggestion those present were unhappy about, saying such a move would harm tourism, the main industry in the area.
"We require clarity on how long patrons have to finish their drinks, and how long they are allowed to stay on the premises after last drinks were served,” said Rob Greyling of Green Fountain Farm.
Kaine Charter, co-owner of Barmuda, wanted to see the new act define a patron's state of inebriation, and their rights as managers of their establishments to refuse to serve alcohol to those deemed to have already had enough.
He also requested clarity on "excessive noise” in and around their establishments, suggesting police officers should be equipped with decibel meters rather than basing their judgement on personal interpretation.
Stakeholders from township taverns were specifically concerned with safety and security of their patrons, asking for definite rules regarding the purchasing of alcohol by adults which may be consumed by children at a restaurant or tavern.
"How do we control that?” asked a representative from Mavis' Bar in Alexandria.
The police in attendance were then given a chance to express their own concerns. SAPS representatives said the current act regarding punitive action for offenders was inadequate.
"We confiscate alcohol being sold illegally and then, after the offender pleads guilty and pays a R250 fine, we have to return all the confiscated alcohol,” complained Port Alfred station commander Colonel Lizette Zeelie.
"It is pathetic. Offenders should forfeit the alcohol to the state. They are smiling.”
Anyone interested in finding out more about the proposed new act, or with suggestions for inclusion should contact Miliswa Grootboom of the provincial safety and liaison department on 079-875-8519 or, fax her on (041) 585 2710.