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Fact-checking South Africa’s health minister on the country’s ‘relationship with alcohol’

South African drinkers don’t consume more per person on average than anywhere else in Africa

This article is more than 3 years old

  • The minister was correct that a significant majority in the country don’t drink – over 50% have never drunk alcohol at all, and 15% have given up.

  • He was also right that South Africans who do drink are amongst the top drinkers in the world.

  • But South African drinkers don’t consume more per person on average than anywhere else in Africa – on this score Tunisia, Eswatini and Namibia are ahead.

South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown has included a number of restrictions on the sale of alcohol. The on-and-off ban on alcohol has sparked much debate and criticism.  

In a guest column for online news site News24, South Africa’s health minister Zweli Mkhize made three claims about the country’s alcohol consumption. 

He said that although only 31% of the population drinks alcohol, South Africans drink more per person than anywhere in Africa. He also claimed that they are among the top drinkers in the world.  

Africa Check contacted the minister’s office for the source of his information and has yet to receive a response.

Do the latest statistics support his claims? We checked. 


Only 31% of South Africans drink alcohol



Many online were skeptical of the health minister’s statement, saying the statistic was inaccurate, too low and a joke  

The most recent data on this topic comes from the World Health Organization, or WHO. It produces global alcohol and health status reports that provide information on alcohol consumption across the world for people aged 15 and older. 

The latest report showed that 69% of South Africans over the age of 15 did not drink alcohol in 2016. This group was made up of 53.5% of people who had never drunk alcohol and 15.5% who used to drink but had stopped. 

The WHO collects alcohol consumption figures from national governments and alcohol industry statistics. South Africa’s data was taken from South African Wine Industry Information and Systems, which measures the consumption of wine, spirits, beer and ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages.

The minister was correct – research shows that only 31% of South Africans drink alcohol. 

South Africa has high levels of binge drinking

The South African Medical Research Council’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit focuses on the extent and consequences of alcohol, tobacco and other drug use in South Africa. 

The unit’s director, Prof Charles Parry, and consultant Prof Neo Morojele have both previously stressed that most South African drinkers don’t use alcohol in moderation. 

“Moderate drinking, however you define it, is relatively rare in South Africa,” Morojele told Africa Check.

The country has high levels of binge drinking. Of those who do drink, 59% of them engage in “heavy episodic drinking”. 

The WHO defines this as consumption of “60 or more grams of pure alcohol on at least one occasion at least once per month”. This is the equivalent of drinking four 340 millilitres bottles of beer or 600 millilitres of white wine in one sitting.

In 2016, South Africa ranked 23rd out of 195 countries for heavy episodic drinking among those who drink.


South Africans drink more per person than anywhere else in Africa



South African drinkers over the age of 15 consumed on average 29.9 litres of pure alcohol each in 2016. The figure was 37.5 litres for men and 13.7 litres for women. 

But three other African countries had higher levels of consumption among drinkers. Tunisia (36.6 litres), Eswatini (34.4 litres) and Namibia (32.4 litres) were above South Africa in the ranking.

Alcohol consumption figures can also be considered in relation to a whole population, including non-drinkers. This is referred to as “per capita”. 

On this measure, South Africa ranked 9th out of 53 African countries, with 9.3 litres of pure alcohol per person in 2016. Nigeria took the top spot with 13.4 litres of pure alcohol per person.   


South Africans are among the top drinkers in the world



In support of this claim, Mkhize said that drinkers consumed on average 64.6 grams of pure alcohol per day. This was in comparison to the global average of 32.8 grams per drinker per day. 

World Health Organization data shows that South African drinkers over the age of 15 consumed 29.9 litres of pure alcohol each in 2016. This works out to 0.08 litres of pure alcohol a day, or 64.6 grams. 

The global average was 15.1 litres in 2016. This is 0.04 litres of pure alcohol a day, or 32.8 grams. 

Based on these figures, South Africa ranked sixth out of 189 countries for alcohol consumption among drinkers.



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