THE Lesotho Liquor and Restaurant Owners Association (LLROA) has filed an urgent High Court application for the nullification of the government’s ban on alcohol sales in the country, saying at least at least 25 000 jobs are at stake.
The government first banned alcohol sales during the lockdown from 30 March to 5 May 2020. It said the move was part of measures to contain the spread of the deadly Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
The alcohol ban was reinstated on 20 July 2020 as Covid-19 infections began to rise exponentially.
When the lockdown ended on 5 May, Lesotho had not recorded a Covid-19 case. The country recorded its first case on 13 May and by yesterday there were 903 infections and 25 deaths. The rising Covid-19 cases prompted the government to issue stricter regulations limiting public gatherings to just 30 people, marriage ceremonies to five people and funerals to just 10 people. It also re-introduced the ban on the liquor sales.
But the LLROA contends the ban is unlawful and has adversely affected its members. It says unless the ban is revoked, its members will be financially ruined and forced to close down their businesses.
It further argues that the liquor industry’s 25 000 workers could lose their jobs.
The application will be heard in the High Court on Wednesday.
The Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro; the Minister responsible for the Disaster Management Authority, Kemiso Mosenene; Health Minister Motlatsi Maqelepo; the Government Secretary Lerotholi Pheko (acting); the Medical, Dental and Pharmacy Council of Lesotho; Trade and Industry Minister Thabiso Molapo; Tourism, Environment and Culture Minister Lekhetho Rakuoane; Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli; Attorney General Haae Phoofolo and the National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) are the first to 10th respondents respectively.
The LLROA wants the High Court to order the government to allow its members to sell alcohol on a takeaway basis from 8am to 6pm just like other businesses are allowed to do.
It wants the court to interdict Commissioner Molibeli and the police from interfering with its members’ business operations.
In terms of the final reliefs, the LLROA wants the court to declare that “the decisions of NACOSEC to prohibit the sale of liquor is contrary to Lesotho’s cabinet decision which allowed the sale of liquor on a takeaway basis and the prohibitions are thus unlawful”.
“In the event of the prohibition of the sale of liquor being continued, the government be ordered to pay the applicant’s members financial relief within two weeks of the granting of the final court order,” the LLROA states in its court papers.
In his founding affidavit filed in support of the application, the LLROA’s secretary general, Itumeleng Mokhele, said the ban on alcohol sales has negatively affected the members of his association.
“The Lesotho government has unlawfully and irregularly interfered with our businesses without proper justification. The interference has failed to strike a balance between two competing rights, namely the right to earn a living and the decision to implement measures to curb the spread of the virus.
“I submit that our members’ businesses are presently being liquidated for the reason that they have been forced to close operations by the respondents. Those that have not been liquidated yet stand to be liquidated in the near future unless this court intervenes.
“I further submit that since we have been unilaterally forced to close operations, we cannot pay our monthly rentals and most of our businesses are being ejected from their premises by their landlords.
“I submit that most of our members are still in possession of large quantities of stock which stands to expire unless this court intervenes. I submit that such a scenario would cause drastic harm to an already bleeding industry.
“I must place this court into my confidence and aver that the liquor and restaurant industry employs approximately 25 000 people. All of these jobs are at stake.
“I aver that unless this court intervenes, massive retrenchments are looming. This court is already cognisant of the state of the economy in this country and such a scenario would be catastrophic in terms of the well-being of this country.
“This court must also bear in mind that the decisions affecting our members have been done illegally or unprocedurally, thus culminating into unlawfulness. I submit for this reason this court is entitled to declare them void.
“It suffices to say that the government is trampling on our members legitimate right to being granted financial relief as per the promise of the former Prime Minister, Motsoahae Thomas Thabane,” Mr Mokhele states.
Mr Mokhele argues that there is no evidence that the sale of alcohol contributes to the spread of Covid-19. As such, he says the ban on liquor sales is unjustified.
“I submit that it cannot be proven that the consumption of liquor spreads Covid-19 in Lesotho.
“The sale of liquor on takeaway basis cannot be proven to be dangerous for the country in such a way that it spreads Covid-19 as opposed to the sale of other beverages.
“There are no published statistics in Lesotho or evidence of any nature to reflect the pros and cons of the sale of liquor on a takeaway basis in Lesotho.
“There is no evidence that the sale of liquor in Lesotho, even on take away basis will compromise the country’s health system in such a way that it may not be able to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Mr Mokhele also accuses NACOSEC of overturning the cabinet’s initial decision to allow the liquor industry to continue operating on a takeaway basis.
“The applicants know that the cabinet of Lesotho resolved that liquor businesses should continue to sell liquor…until 18:00 hours.
“I aver it came as a shock when the legal notice 63 of 2020 (banning the sale of alcohol) came out (on 20 July 2020). It said that the country is in the orange colour in terms of Covid-19 prevalence. It (NACOSEC) changed the cabinet’s decision to say that the sale of liquor should be prohibited 100 percent…
“NACOSEC made its own decision that is contrary to that of the cabinet…
“I aver that the decision to close businesses was made unilaterally. I aver that the decision to prohibit the 100 percent sale of liquor is not based on any valid grounds in law,” Mr Mokhele argues.