For most students, university life can be directly linked to drinking alcohol – legally, that is.

However, if Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has his way, students who are 21 years old or older may be the only ones who are allowed to drink legally. At a recent World Health Organisation meeting in Boksburg, Motsoaledi addressed numerous issues concerning alcohol and said that raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 is one of a range of measures being considered to reduce the harm caused by alcohol consumption.

This means that for a certain percentage of students on campus, places like Oom Gert’s will only be accessible if they drink coke, as a new drinking age will prevent service providers from selling alcohol to “minors”, which would then refer to everyone under 21.

Sally Thorp, a director at Life Talk, thinks the new laws won’t have much of an effect unless government looks at the root causes behind alcohol abuse. “As a society, we need to start taking responsibility for our own actions, but too many laws could push drinking underground,” she says. She adds that, at the moment, the legal age limit for drinking is 18, but children as young as ten are drinking and bringing alcohol to school. Thorp’s views are echoed by the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA). “Raising the legal drinking age to 21 will have no impact on alcohol abuse. We already have 12 and 13-year-olds who drink, so how on earth will raising the legal drinking age affect alcohol abuse?” says ARA director Adrian Botha.

According to research done by South African Breweries, teenagers between the ages of 16 and 21 who use alcohol are three times more likely to be involved in violent crimes and 50 times more likely to use cocaine. The communications manager of the Eastern Cape Liquor Board, Mgwebi Msiya, says that the board doubts that increasing the legal age would have much of an impact on the troubles of alcohol abuse among young adults. “Monitoring this behaviour has always proven very difficult. We strongly believe it is through education that we can change or influence our young people against underage drinking.”

Vermont Quarterly writer Ruth Clifford Engs argues in an article called “Forbidden Fruits” that it is important to allow young adults to drink in controlled environments such as restaurants, taverns, pubs and university functions because it promotes mature and acceptable drinking. However, rebellion could take place if under-21s are banned from drinking. “When they do have the opportunity to drink, they will do so in an irresponsible manner, because drinking by these youth is seen as an enticing forbidden fruit, a badge of rebellion against authority and a symbol of adulthood,” Engs writes.

Meanwhile, the Department of Social Development in the Eastern Cape seems to be backing this new proposal. “If increasing the age limit will help solve this problem that is destroying our youth, we as the department are willing to try it out but we also want stricter enforcement [of] the current legal age,” said the department’s spokesperson Gcobani Maswana.

According to studies done by South Africans Against Drunk Driving, the chances of becoming addicted to alcohol are higher when drinking starts at an early age. There is a 40% chance of addiction if drinking is started under the age of 15, a 20% chance if started under 21 and a 10% chance if started over 21 years of age.

“When looking at all the statistics concerning alcohol abuse among young adults, it’s understandable as to why the health minister would want to raise the legal age limit. But I still oppose this. I can handle my alcohol,” says 20-year-old second-year drama student, Charlene van der Linde.

The legislation, however, has not been tabled yet. “This proposal has been heard before. They said the same thing a few years ago. This isn’t the first time government has talked about raising the legal age of drinking, so we can’t really comment until there is something on paper,” says Western Cape Liquor Authority spokesperson Philip Prinsloo.

Most students are opposed to the proposed law change. Jaco Kleinsmith, a 19-year-old first-year law student, voices the opinion supported by what he believes to be the majority of the student population. “Raising the age limit will not stop students from finding ways to drink. We will drink at home or find people to buy alcohol for us. We believe that we are responsible enough to handle it appropriately, so why take this right away from us now?” he says.

Riaan Pretorius, a 19-year-old first-year law student, says, “I will always find ways of drinking. I have waited 18 years to do so and I am not going to stop now. Give us the law and we give you the finger.”

Photo: Reinhard Nell

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