Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Men’s Health South Africa.
It appears here as part of our #MHReads series of long-form articles.
By Ian McNaught Davis
Photographs by Great Stock / Corbis
It’s squeegee bottle season in Stellenbosch. Thousands of plastic bottles have been lying dormant in cupboards over the summer holidays. If you’re one of the 22 000 students in town on 31 January you’ve most likely washed out your squeegee bottle, filled it with an economically viable blend of spirit and mix, and headed out the door for an evening of theatre. Tonight it’s Vensters, a University of Stellenbosch tradition where the residences’ first-years put on elaborate 10-minute plays in the streets. These shows – marked by bizarre plots, synchronised dancing and scant outfits – are repeated throughout the evening in front of squeegee-bottle-bearing masses that eventually migrate down the campus’s gentle gradient to the town’s clubs and pubs.
A wheezing golf screeches around a corner in the Eikestad Mall parking lot. A bedraggled 20-something sticks his head out of the window and screams, “F*k julle n@*#ers!” above a barrage of basslines from The Brazen Head, The Mystic Boer and Bohemia. “F*k off, p@#s!” someone shouts back at him. Gelled and mascara’d students spill through the porous walls of Bohemia – which is about as much of a restaurant as Vensters is thespianism – and idle on the pavement outside. The gutter has become a graveyard for discarded squeegee bottles. Almost a decade ago I was a first-year in my res’s Vensters play that involved Buddha, transvestites, mermaids, samurais and girls in short skirts. When it was finished, we followed the red-bricked road down Victoria Street to Bohemia’s vortex of loud music, cheap booze and vaporising inhibitions, and promptly got wasted. Because that’s how it’s done. He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man, said the writer Dr Samuel Johnson, and pains are easier to get rid of when you haven’t been alive long enough to stockpile them. Or when you can stumble home instead of driving. Or when your culture says this is normal. If you need an excuse, you can pick one.
This is a generalisation. It is possible for students to register at a university and not need to find reasons to binge drink. But the students that do binge drink make up for the ones that don’t, and throughout the country, emerging beasts are shrugging off the burdens of manhood in muggy bars like this one.
I start talking to a girl who’s studying drama. She’s part of a minimally dressed posse who are all out to out-drama-student everyone. Everyone’s bubblier than the extrovert next to them. Maybe that’s because everyone is wasted except for me, the tax-payer who graduated before these girls sipped their first cider. This is the most responsible I have ever felt in Bohemia; I have become the designated driver that I never had. It’s time for a beer.
Most of these people are in alcohol’s euphoric phase – the one that comes before lethargy, confusion, stupor and coma – that reads 0.03 to 0.12 on the breathalyser. This is drunk dialling, Hunt The Grunt, let’s-go-streaking territory. These decisions are the fruits of frazzled neurons, and acting on them often makes for good stories the next morning. Other decisions carry consequences that can change lives irrevocably, like the choice of an 18-year-old female student who – while in alcohol’s blissfully ignorant state of euphoria – killed a 20-year-old male student in the early hours of a weekend morning. Her weapon was a car and a bloodstream burdened with booze. For legal reasons, we’ve can’t mention her name, but – in a country with one of the highest incidences of drunken driving in the world – she could be anyone.
The quiet, leafy suburb where it took place also goes unnamed, but it could have been anywhere. If you’re near a road, you’re near a previous or potential crime scene. In South Africa where, according to the AA, 76% of drivers break the law each day, to put the rubber of your tyres or the soles of your shoes on tar is to tempt fate.
For the same reasons, we can’t mention his name either. He was a formidable sportsman; coaches and experts had noticed his exceptional blend of athletic and leadership abilities, and he was earmarked to play at national level. But in this story, he is a number – he’s one of the almost 12 000 South African citizens that lose their lives every year because of drunken driving. According the SAPS, these figures increase annually but not even a swelling body count can bring sober habits to our country’s drivers.
More than 60% of trauma cases in the hospitals of South Africa are linked to alcohol consumption. The young man in this particular incident didn’t have the luxury of being a trauma case as the 18-year-old skipped a red light and slammed her hatchback into him, and tearing his car in two. She wasn’t an alcoholic; she was just in the wrong state at the wrong time. Dr Andreas Plüddemann, a specialist scientist in the Medical Research Council’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Unit, says alcoholics are often perceived as a main threat in alcohol-related accidents but their drinking habits are often more sedate than most people think. The volatile drinkers are the bingers, like the extraverted flurry of dubious decisions you become after too many shooters. To reach binge drinking level, you need to drink five or more drinks in one setting, says Dr Sue Goldstein, the CEO of the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication. In this state, alcohol’s effects can be paradoxical: what you gain in self-confidence, you lose in attention span and as sociability increases, fine muscle coordination decreases. Had the fickle biological processes in the 18-year-old’s nervous system been more coherent, the unnamed 20-year-old may have appeared in this magazine in a sports feature. Instead, he’s a consequence of a car key in an ignition when it shouldn’t have been. He could have been you. She could have been you.
Death – the most final of outcomes of a bender – couldn’t be further from the mind of an average university student. When I was a student, drinking was where most things slid to. Low-risk piss-ups were easy to schedule and budget for, and the only thing in danger was your dignity – which is a relative concept at a university campus anyway. It was unheard of to have a res function without down-downs, and for four years, punch was mainly used in its noun form and funnel was a verb. That’s what we were told normal student behaviour entailed, and that’s why it hasn’t changed since then.
Just as thoughts like, It’s Wednesday, ergo I must get shitfaced, are far from natural ideas, the concept of student life is equally unnatural; each campus hosts a convergence of malleable minds – in limbo betw-een school uniforms and mortgage loans – presented with the opportunity to experiment with gentrified debauchery where they are given a chance to “get it out of your system”. When I was a student, I regularly took the get-it-out-of-your-system part literally, and when I graduated I left varsity with two degrees and a diverse network of places where I have thrown up: botanical gardens, the town hall gardens, burger joint toilets, lecture room toilets, res toilets, en route to toilets, out of car windows, underneath bridges, in the paddocks of the university’s experimental farm and in the dead ball area of the rugby stadium, to name but a few.
As unpleasant as it may seem to regurgitate the gory details of your vomiting habits, there’s often a subtle sentiment of pride that lies beneath it. Perhaps this is because relaying your inebriated antics affirms your belonging amongst other like-livered people; it’s a sign of fitting in in a world where alcohol-induced vomiting is a side effect of fun. But ultimately, this attitude is because of an inescapable equation of our culture: heavy drinking is a sign of manhood.
Men have a higher alcohol tolerance than women because of higher quantities of an enzyme called dehydrogenase that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. Couple a man’s natural ability to hold booze with his natural competitiveness, and you’ve got a stumbling, slurring, bush-diving natural disaster.
One of many such disasters is reeling in the bushes outside the law department – a stoner’s throw-up away from my old chundering grounds – getting in touch with his inner beast, as per Dr Johnson’s prescription. He’s trying to stand up. His friends are pissing against a wall. One of them is filming him with a phone. Further down the road, a girl is on the ground, leaning against an electricity box and fumbling with her phone. Her sweat-smudged makeup has clotted around her eyes. Her friend is fixing her wayward bra strap. She looks like she’s at a casting for an Arrive Alive ad. This short stretch of tar shows the end product of a night out on the town for young South Africans: drunk and defenceless.
Plüddemann lived in a men’s residence in 1992. “At least once a month there was a competition to see who could drink a beer the fastest, and the record was about three seconds,” he says. “To drink a glass of water in that time is probably not healthy.”
“This was the culture at the time,” he says. “I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t exist anymore.” The desire to make a game out of something as simple as swallowing beer reveals the inescapable competitiveness that comes with a Y chromosome. “It’s primal,” says Plüddemann. “Most of us play games in some form until we die.” Male residences are the most significant factor in encouraging binge drinking at universities, according to Anne Mager, author of Beer, Sociability and Masculinity in South Africa (R243, kalahari.com) and a lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s department of historical studies. These environments stimulate an intimacy built on loyalty and mutuality, she says. “Drinking as a group of men, and initiating men into this culture through drinking is part of creating these bonds,” says Mager. “Both the nature of the bonding and the character of the drinking are excessive.”
“Arriving at a university a young person will be forgiven for believing that this is normal behaviour,” says Goldstein.
Out of all the universities, Stellenbosch and Rhodes have the reputation of being heavy drinking ones, says Plüddemann. Rhodes University was identified by research from the Centre For Applied Legal Studies as the university with the highest alcohol consumption in the country. However, in the African Journal of Drug & Alcohol Studies study authors Charles Young and Vivian de Klerk researched alcohol usage at Rhodes and found that the level of drinking is no higher than that at any other university. This, they explain, is because the drinking behaviour is highly visible because of the size of the town; and many off-campus pubs and bars are situated near to the university, whereas in city-based universities drinking seems more inconspicuous.
This doesn’t mean there’s less drinking at city universities, says Plüddemann. “In-depth research on the drinking habits at UCT showed that drinking was no different at UCT than anywhere else.” The research also reported the same level of binge drinking across faculties.
Young and De Klerk explain that because of the small size of the university as a whole, students at Rhodes have very strong social networks. Adding to Rhodes’s reputation are the sagas of its notorious underground drinking clubs. Bizarre formalities surround these banned secret societies – members have titles and each club has a specific uniform that they wear to meetings where they drink excessively. Shaun (name changed), a former Rhodes student and insider to the drinking club culture, explains that members of these secret societies are carefully chosen. “You must be approached by someone to be in the club,” he says. After being seconded, the nominees go through a process called “guesting”. “When you’re guesting, you’re not a formal member – you don’t have a title but you still have to wear a uniform. It’s a trial run, basically. Some people will often guest for one night, and be like, ‘This is f*cked up,’ and never do it again, or keep attending meetings and then get inducted.”
When Shaun attended university, the meetings and initiation rites would happen in the basement of an infamous digs on Somerset Street. Here, the seniors of the club – referred to as ministers – make speeches and members undergo inspection to ensure their uniforms are properly worn. Any offenders would be fined, unsurprisingly, by drinking. During the meetings, members drink disproportionate amounts of beer, Crackling wine and hard liquor. Drinking prowess is determined by how much each member vomits into their personal buckets by weighing them. “If you were guesting you had to clean up the chunder the next day,” Shaun says.
Minutes from the meetings are kept in books that document debaucherous basement-bound assemblies up to 50 years ago. “Keeping minutes was problematic because they would get vomited on or get lost,” says Shaun. “That was part of the fun with the minutes, you know, they’d say things like ‘Have no recollection of the next two hours.’”
The drinking clubs run events where they invite other drinking clubs of the university to join in. These often take place in the townships outside Grahamstown – far from witnesses and close to shebeens. The brotherhood of the drinking club is the main appeal, he says. “There’s a lot of prestige that comes with being part of it. And if you drop out of it, it’s a big deal – you lose your mates.”
Some students graduate and some drop out but everybody leaves university eventually. And when they do, they become assimilated into a society that already has a drinking problem. The per capita measurement of alcohol consumption in South Africa is deceptive. On face value, the average South African displays a Mediterranean-style drinking habit, those who have a glass of wine over dinner. The trouble is, the average South African doesn’t exist. In this country, there are those who drink a little, those that drink a lot and very few in between. Plüddemann explains that a large population of black women who hardly drink tends to dilute the figures. The moment you separate people who drink alcohol from the rest, says Plüddemann, there’s a frighteningly high number of heavy drinkers.
A study by the World Health Organisation showed that the per capita intake of South African male binge drinkers from the age of 15 onwards is nearly 40 litres of pure alcohol per year. “We’ve done calculations that put us in the deep red zone,” says Plüddemann. “This puts us in the highest bracket in the world, along with Russia and the Ukraine.” We are drinking heavily amongst the drinkers.”
The men of South Africa are inherently thirsty. “Drinking is deeply entrenched in South African cultures across the board,” says Plüddemann. It’s present in black, coloured, white Afrikaans and white English cultures, he insists.
While permissive cultures can exacerbate drinking impulses, conservative upbringings can be just as detrimental. “When people come from strict homes, they come to the cities and that exposes them to alcohol, and most of them don’t know that it’s different to cooldrink,” Plüddemann says.
“You start experimenting,” he says. “You’ve got lots of freedom so you take it as far as you wish, especially if you come from an environment where the opposite was the case.” Academic pressures and being in a competitive environment facilitate binge drinking, says Benita Southgate, principle psychologist at the University of Cape Town’s Student Wellness Service. Plüddemann believes that the stress levels from the transition from high school to university hasn’t changed for the last 100 years. “You’re expected to do a lot more than you did a couple of months ago and you’re on your own. Your individual support is usually vastly reduced.” He believes a high-pressure environment is a significant enabler of binging. “It’s getting worse with the speed and demand of technology.”
“I’m gonna be so f*cking hungover at registration tomorrow,” says a girl in front of me in the queue at the BP petrol station– the pie shop at the end of the universe. In the context of South Africa’s collective drinking problem, having a hangover means getting off lightly. Wasted is the desired state achieved by these pie shoppers, but it’s also the adjective that governs the lives of thousands of South Africans every year who find themselves on the fatal end of overwhelmed blood-alcohol contents. Or the R20-billion that South Africa loses in productivity costs due to alcohol-related deaths, absenteeism, poor productivity and high turnover. Wasted lives. Wasted money. Wasted time.
One of the appeals of a bender in a town like this is the convenience. “You can walk home afterwards,” says Plüddemann. “It’s fairly quiet and safe. So you think, ‘I’ll get over it. Once I get out of here I won’t be doing this any more.’ But unfortunately some don’t make it, and they become addicted or entrenched in impulse-drinking.”
South Africa’s drinking statistics prove that the boys’ clubs don’t end at varsity. Drinking culture is entrenched in society, insists Plüddemann. This culture is responsible for one in seven drivers sharing the road with you at night being drunk. It is the root of 60% of pedestrian collisions, the main insigator of spousal abuse and the perpetrator of more than three quarters of homicides.
If a drinking habit hatched in studenthood becomes serious, it’s usually not acknowledged until much later in life, says Plüddemann. “Young people usually have quite a high tolerance so it takes a while before they start experiencing addiction problems. But usually by the time they knock on the door of a rehab centre, most of them are already 35 to 40.”
But here, in this queue of people standing in line for pies on an improbable island off the coast of the real world, hangovers are one of the reigning crises and so they are blunting the impending wrath by filling their tested stomachs with fast food. Then they’ll wander off home, gulp down some water and pass out. And in a few hours they’ll start again. Because it’s summer. Or because there’s no class tomorrow. Or because they’re young. If you need an excuse, you can pick one.