Although not explicitly mentioned, the study points to extreme poverty and social deprivation common to millions of those living in South Africa’s rural areas.
In 2012, a 30 percent decrease of the FAS prevalence in De Aar was reported, bringing the rate down to 85 out of 1,000 children. Nevertheless, this is still astonishingly high.
Nationally, the FAS rate is estimated to be 14 out of 1,000 births. FARR estimates that there are 1 million FAS people in the population, plus another 5 million alcohol-damaged individuals. This means that there are 6 million people that are mentally and physically disabled by the effects of alcohol.
Historically, the consumption of large amounts of alcohol is associated with the dop system, whereby farm labourers were paid part of their wages in cheap wine. This system stretches back to the beginnings of colonial agriculture in South Africa. Colonial farmers were assured of a compliant and completely dependent labour force by means of the dop system. The foundation of capitalist agriculture in the Western Cape, which relied upon the harsh exploitation of black labour, is inextricably intertwined with the dop system. The American Journal of Public Health notes that in the Western Cape farmers “institutionalised alcohol as a condition of service.” Moreover, “it is still apparent today that alcohol is a favored, valued and expected commodity among many of the local population workers, who receive low pay and who live in very humble circumstances”.
In the 1920s, the dop system was outlawed but continued to be widely practiced until 1994, when concerted efforts were made to eradicate it. Nevertheless, it still continues in a few isolated pockets. The dop system is responsible for the entrenched pattern of binge drinking common to working class areas in the Western Cape.
The continued prevalence of alcoholism and binge drinking has roots in the social conditions of the working class in the Western Cape, particularly women in rural areas. Women constitute approximately 30 percent of the labour force and are two to three times more likely than men to be employed as casual labourers. More than two thirds of farm worker families earn an income of less than R800 (US$100) per month.
According to the American Journal of Public Health, “It has been found that mothers of FAS children in the region come from families with a history of generations of alcohol abuse and heavy drinking.”
The lives of farm labourers are precarious and insecure. Often remote and isolated, such workers depend almost completely on the farm owner. Under these semi-feudal conditions, the children of farm workers tend to become farm workers themselves. For FAS children in rural areas, there are very few facilities that attend to their needs. Future employment means performing the most menial tasks on farms.
The consumption of alcohol is a way of coping with appalling social conditions and grinding poverty. Alcohol numbs the pain of dealing with a situation from which there seems to be no escape. The eradication of FAS requires a far-reaching restructuring of social and property relations in South Africa’s rural areas on the basis of a socialist programme.