Long reign of the South African shebeen queen

A far cry from today’s commercial and even craft beer brewing, traditional home brewing was unpaid, as with much of what is designated women’s work.

Township dwellers congregate at shebeens to take time out listening to music, dancing and enjoying a drink. (Image: Chris Smith, Flickr)

Aneshree Naidoo

When Miriam Makeba debuted in the musical King Kong, she immortalised the shebeen queen: these were the tough-talking, no-nonsense women of the townships who put their traditional brewing skills to use to keep their families from dire poverty during the oppressive apartheid years.

In South Africa, as across the world, brewing was historically women’s work, falling under the ambit of household or ceremonial duties. A far cry from today’s commercial and even craft beer brewing, traditional home brewing was unpaid, as with much of what is designated women’s work. But as apartheid legislation eroded the quality of life of black South Africans, women used their traditional skills to keep liquor flowing, defying the prohibition on black South Africans drinking and brewing alcohol. Their illegal – and hence dangerous – activities provided a regular source of income for their fragmented families.

Shebeen queens were shrewd businesswomen. Realising that police would confiscate their slow brews when they raided, they developed shorter brewing times, adapting traditional methods to create stronger, quicker brews to serve to patrons after work on Fridays. Sometimes, to give the brews more of a kick, they shored up the liquor with dangerous additives such as methylated spirits, a denatured alcohol.

Shebeen culture

Despite the dangers, shebeens became central to cultural life for black South Africans. They were communal talking, laughing, drinking spaces where ideas as heady as the liquor flowed. Activists gathered to debate heatedly, while lovers and friends chatted; and the music played on. The now unmistakeable rhythms of township life – phatha patha, kwaito, kwela and township jazz, the love children of South African marabi beats and American soulful blues – spilled out of the shebeens, lifting hearts and growing the passion for freedom. The music itself was a defiant middle finger to the apartheid authorities, creating stars like Makeba, Hugh Masakela and so many other artists. It crossed international borders and spread the message that black South Africans were human, living, loving and creating, and, under apartheid, dying.

Shebeens thrived after the 1927 Liquor Act, which among other restrictions “prohibited Africans and Indians from selling alcohol or entering licensed premises”. While African women were uniquely suited to brewing beer given their traditional skills, their growing role as shebeen queens was also dictated by legislation. As they did not have to carry passes until the 1950s, they were undesirable employees, their movements uncontrollable. They were economic wild cards, often single women making a living in a male-dominated society. And as shebeens became more popular, their risky livelihoods were threatened. Along with evading arrest and having their products confiscated, they eventually faced stiff competition.

Shebeens are more than drinking establishments, they are central to the cultural life of black South Africans. (Image: Stanley Sagov)

Apartheid profits from beer sales

The 1927 Liquor Act may have spurred the growth of shebeens, but from 1937, municipal drinking halls encroached on the women’s businesses. The profits from the halls benefitted the municipalities, but unlike the shebeen queens’ incomes, never trickled through to the families supported by the businesses. By the 1960s, despite protests, more than 60 municipalities operated legal beer halls; black African women controlled the illegal business. There were more than 10 000 shebeens in Soweto alone, and some 30 000 illegal brewers had set up shop in the Western Cape. The women were powerful, walking tall in their independence, and often berated the men who drank at the beer halls for not supporting their community-centred businesses.

Their reign was soon to end though. The Act had restricted profits for commercial brewers, and in 1962 the apartheid government caved under pressure from the industry and opened up sales to black South Africans. They could not drink in town – white areas – but they could now buy commercial beer at off-sales. South African Breweries and the apartheid state saw their profits grow.

Despite their waning stars, the shebeen queens have become a celebrated archetype in South African art, film and literature. Fred Khumalo’s protagonist, Lettie, in Bitches’ Brew, chooses the life when her teen lover turns out to be unworthy; in Down Second Avenue, Es’kia Mphahlele describes the economic independence being a shebeen queen offered: “The same old cycle. Leave school, my daughter, and work, you cannot sit at home and have other people work for you; stand up and do the white man’s washing and sell beer. That’s right – that is how a woman does it; look at us, we do not sit and look up to our husbands or fathers to work alone; we have sent our children to school with money from beer selling…”

In Mine Boy, Peter Abrahams describes the dangers the women faced, as well as their solidarity in adversity: “They are all women who sell beer. And if one is arrested they all come together and collect money among themselves and bail out the arrested one. They are here to collect money for those who were arrested yesterday.”

Bloke Modisane, in his autobiography, Blame Me on History, tells of how having a shebeen queen mother changed his life: “My mother wanted a better life for her children, a kind of insurance against poverty by trying to give me a prestige profession, and if necessary would go to jail whilst doing it.”

Popular soapie Generations has its own shebeen queen. Mam’ Ruby has viewers buzzing with her antics, while Isidingo has introduced a shebeen king, the charismatic Georgie Zamdela.

Legal shebeens keep communities afloat

Today, shebeens are legal and serve mostly commercial beers and other alcoholic drinks, along with some traditional beers, or umqombothi, made from maize or sorghum. They are still cultural centres, but the shebeens’ defiant character has been replaced with a more laid-back vibe. They are now also subject to the same taxes and legislation as all legal liquor-serving establishments. This places an enormous financial burden on owners, most of whom are still female, while smaller businesses further away from wealthier urban centres face the threat of closure.

In 2012, the Foundation for Sustainable Livelihoods counted some 25 000 informal alcohol outlets in the Western Cape. Each establishment employed on average three to four people. In total, some 210 000 people would have lost their jobs had the shebeens closed down. The economic benefits shebeens had, and still have, cannot be discounted, even as it is acknowledged that they take a heavy social toll, and can often be public nuisances.

Since 1994, there have been moves to restrict 24-hour trading to reduce noise; serving alcohol to intoxicated people; and serving alcohol to underage people. KwaZulu-Natal has gone a step further, and requires the owners of liquor outlet to give back to the communities in which they operate by participating in community development initiatives.

The new face of South African brewing

Craft brewing has become immensely popular of late, with the trendy hip crowd seeking rare brews at high prices. The fashion has also, in the mainstream consciousness, overshadowed traditional South African brewing, opting to focus on hops and wheat-based brews rather than traditional African ingredients. The industry, as with major commercial brewing, is also male-dominated.

Apiwe Nxusani, the brewmaster at microbrewery Brewhogs in Gauteng, is one of a handful of black female brewers in the country. She says her industry is slowly starting to change, even as traditional African brewing is still seen as a “woman’s job”. She says the perception that commercial and craft beer brewing and drinking is for men needs to be challenged, to attract more women to the industry. “I think the big boys should lead the pack and start advertising and marketing beer as also a woman’s drink of choice – make it cool for a woman to be seen enjoying a cold beer.”

While commercial brews dominate the market, and craft beers are making inroads, traditional brewing has not completely fallen away. Legacy brands such as iJuba, Chibuku, and Joburg Beer, produced by United National Breweries, are easily available, and are still brewed using traditional principles and traditional ingredients.

The art of brewing, and the role of women in it, is a story as old as modern humanity. And as the industry grows, refines it methods and produces more inventive products, South Africa will remember the women – the shebeen queens – who faced down an oppressive government, beer in hand.

As Shakespeare said: “She brews good ale, and thereof comes the proverb, ‘Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.'”

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