Published: 07:46 EDT, 1 June 2020 | Updated: 11:52 EDT, 1 June 2020
South Africans formed long queues to buy alcohol this morning after the country ended a two-month drinking ban during coronavirus lockdown.
Unwilling to wait for lockdown to ease, one group of thieves in Johannesburg tunnelled through a 2ft-thick wall into an off licence and robbed £15,000 worth of booze.
Footage and images from outside other stores across South Africa show people lining up in their dozens this morning, before emerging from the shops with crates of beer, wine and spirits.
Authorities imposed restrictions on the sale of alcohol two months ago to curb the amount of hospital admissions from booze-related violence.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, alcohol was the cause of 40 per cent of hospital admissions in South Africa, with 34,000 trauma cases passing through emergency departments in any normal week.
The ban saw A&E admissions drop significantly and beds were kept open for coronavirus patients, officials said.
While A&E admissions did drop overall, some people died or ended up in hospital after ingesting home-brewed alcohol.
Customers queue to buy alcohol on day 66 of the national lockdown in Johannesburg, South Africa this morning
A customer buys alcohol alcohol on day 66 of South Africa’s national lockdown in Johannesburg, South Africa, today
Customers queue to buy alcohol on day 66 of South Africa’s national lockdown in Johannesburg this morning
Since the lockdown, alcohol has been in huge demand with bottles of wine and spirits selling for up to four times normal value on the black market to desperate boozers.
On opening this morning, a shocked manager at the Shoprite found there was not a drop to sell.
A Shoprite source said:’The manageress could not believe her eyes when she went in to prepare for the re-opening as all the alcohol was gone from most of the shelves.
‘The store was still fully locked up and it was only when she walked round that she found this open tunnel by one of the fridge freezers and realised what had happened.
‘It seems the thieves had worked out where the electrical and storm water drains run below the shopping mall to the shop and how to get right underneath the liquor store.
‘They must have had pneumatic drills or used hammers and chisels but did not make any noise and had to break through several feet of concrete to tunnel up into the shop.
‘The CCTV cameras have been reviewed and it shows three men inside the store 10 days ago but there must have been many more out of sight waiting in the tunnel below.
Pictured: The tunnel the thieves made to get into the off licence, where they stole £15,000 worth of alcohol during lockdown
Workers help a customer load alcohol in his van moments after purchasing alcohol at Makro Silverlakes Liquor Store in Pretoria today
‘They must have passed all bottles of whisky, rum, gin, vodka, brandy, bacardi and whatever down the hole as well as all the crates of cider, lager and real ale until it was all gone.
‘We reckon it must have taken some time and several visits to empty the off-licence and we had no idea until our manageress went in to open up the store for business’.
The store at the popular Newton Junction mall had been shut down on March 27 as part of the Covid-19 lockdown throughout South Africa which banned all alcohol as well as cigarettes.
Shoprite said they had no idea how many people were involved or how long it had taken to drill the tunnel into their store and steal all the booze worth over R300,000 (£15,000).
Loss Control Manager Oswald Meiring confirmed CCTV footage on May 21 showed three men inside the store probably passing stock to others in the tunnel below.
He said a R50,000 (£2,500) reward had been put up for the arrest of the gang.
A South African Police spokesman said the CCTV footage was being checked along with all the entrance points to the storm drains and electrical service hatches in the mall.
At least 18 people have drunk themselves to death in South Africa making powerful home brew spiced up with additives like sanitiser or ethanol and dying in agony from the mixture.
Police revealed last week that three people died in three different villages in the Eastern Cape after drinking the brew which was mixed with potent additives like methylated spirits.
A customer with a trolley-full of alcohol walks through a liquor store in Johannesburg, South Africa this morning
Nine victims suffered excruciating stomach pains and were left doubled over, vomiting in agony, and most of them died before reaching hospital. The rest died shortly after.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that people will only be able to buy alcohol from Monday to Thursday between 9am and 5pm.
Authorities also warned people of the risk of spreading coronavirus if they rushed to the stores today, the BBC reported.
However, images and videos from social media shows many South Africans have decided not to heed the advice, coming out in force in long queues to buy alcohol from the stores.
The move to reopen alcohol-selling stores is part of South Africa’s plan to revive its stuttering economy with the partial lifting of a coronavirus lockdown, which was one of the toughest in the world.
From today, South Africans will be let out for work, worship or shopping, and mines and factories will be able to run at full capacity.
President Ramaphosa was widely praised when he ordered a strict lockdown at the end of March, but the measures have battered the economy of Africa’s most industrialised nation, which was already in recession before the coronavirus.
But moving to ‘level 3’ lockdown so soon has been questioned by some who say it will inevitably increase the number of coronavirus cases, which jumped above 30,000 over the weekend.
‘We are taking a gradual approach, guided by the advice of our scientists and led by the realities on the ground,’ Ramaphosa said in a statement.
Many more people, half of whom live below the official poverty line, are at risk from hunger because of the shutdown and industry officials said the outlook remained bleak.
Although schools were ordered to open on Monday for the last years of primary and secondary, unions urged teachers and other staff to stay away, saying they were not equipped to keep employees and pupils safe.
The education ministry backed down on Sunday, saying pupils would now return the week after next. Teachers will report this week for training and to receive protective gear.
‘We have heard them (the teachers’ unions) … and are taking steps to address their concerns,’ Ramaphosa said.
However, Western Cape province, which is run by the opposition Democratic Alliance, said that its schools would re-open as planned on Monday, because they were well-equipped. The province is the main coronavirus hotspot, with two thirds of confirmed cases.
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World news – ZA – Coronavirus: South Africa’s booze ban is lifted