Fascinating History of Shebeens


By Petronella Sibeene WINDHOEK Many African institutions have a rich cultural history behind them and shebeens that might be regarded as the foundation of black social life in some countries on the continent are no exception. Shebeens have after Nami-bia’s independence become ‘favourite hot spots’ for all sorts of people. Teachers, lawyers, musicians, social workers, nurses, doctors, soccer bosses and, for a good measure, journalists frequent such places. They have actually become an oasis where subjects ranging from philosophy and politics to soccer and music are discussed. However, the culture of shebeens and how they started specifically in Namibia remain unclear. Social activist Andrew Matjila revealed that local shebeens are a spillover from South Africa. It is a way of coming together developed by the black people who were not allowed during the colonial era to buy and consume European beer and other drinks not by choice but because the colonial laws did not permit them to do so. They (shebeens) owe their existence to the colonial governments’ policies of restricting blacks from formal economic activity. In order to earn a living, township mamas sold a variety of home-brewed concoctions. Given the spirit of Africanism, customers would guzzle the ‘drink’ from outsized jam tins that would be passed around a human circle for each to have a sip. Those were the days when black people were prohibited from selling or drinking the white man’s ‘tepid waters of immortality’, this was according to Matjila, in the 1880s already. Well, what was intended to humiliate the township folk gave birth to a new cultural expression as shebeens became a popular social rendezvous among township drinkers. Many people turned their four-roomed houses into places where one could stop for a drink, a date, a chat or beautiful music. Patrons would cram themselves into the dining-room of the township home while the shebeen queen or king (the female or male proprietor) used one of the bedrooms as an office to keep the sales proceeds. If the dining-room became overcrowded, other rooms, including the spare bedroom, would be used to accommodate customers. In the process, she-beens graduated from selling inferior spirits and brew into dealing in beer and more refined ‘firewater’. But typical of the lives of most black people in the old South Africa, this aspect of township life was not without its problems. Police raids on shebeens were a common sight and when they occurred, shebeeners were left with empty shelves and refrigerators after the confiscation of all their stock, said Matjila. At worst, both owners and patrons would be arrested and pay heavy fines for transgressing the law. “Many people were arrested and they lost their stock. Heavy fines were also paid. At that time, they would pay about ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚£10 (ten pounds). People had to smuggle the liquor because they also wanted to drink whisky and brandy,” Matjila said. Patrons never gave up after such police raids. After all, the liquor must have tasted even better when it was illegal, a hardy boozer of the time would claim. Needless to mention, sin is sweet as the old adage goes. Shebeeners always went back to their trade and the revellers also reverted to their watering holes. In 1984, then realising shebeens were here to stay, the National Party apartheid government was forced to recognise them. For the first time, liquor licences were granted to 27 Soweto shebeen operators, and shortly thereafter, another 36 licences were issued country-wide. Today, there are several hundred licensed shebeens but unlicensed shebeens are said to outnumber those that are legal, a scenario familiar to the Namibian setup today. Though shebeens could be regarded as an old industry in South Africa, it is a “new culture” in Namibia , says one of the wise old men in the country, Uncle Paul Helmut. Before shebeens were legalised in Namibia in 1998, Helmut says, Namibia used to have beer halls. “They used to sell mukomboti (African beer) and tombo. The difference is that mukomboti had no sugar added to it but tombo had sugar.” Prior to that, they had ‘ertjies (peas) brew’ and this was not sold in public. “Only few people came in and if police found out, then there would be trouble,” said Uncle Paul. In addition, Namibians were also introduced to cuca-shops, an Angolan tradition. Uncle Paul explained that ‘cuca’ is a Portuguese word for beer. A cuca-shop is different from a shebeen as it entails selling liquor and other foodstuffs. Cuca-shops operate away from homesteads. “This is done to keep the house harmonious,” said Uncle Paul. The Liquor Act of 1998 (Act 6 of 1998) legalised the selling of liquor on the shelves of shebeens, cuca-shops and other businesses. The Act further requires shebeen operators to meet certain conditions that lately have become the subject of controversy among operators and law enforcers. For more than a month, the media has been running endless articles on the shebeen issue. Several demonstrations have been held by shebeen operators who want the Government to create an enabling environment for them to continue to operate their she-beens. One of the conditions in the new law is the building of two separate toilets – for men and women shebeen customers. Unfortunately, many shebeen operators find it difficult to meet this requirement including failure to obtain liquor licences which in the past month resulted in the closure of thousands of these small liquor outlets. One of the shebeeners Moses Amukoto argues that the current Liquor Act should not apply to cuca-shops especially in the northern part of the country. He explains, “These are places that are far from homesteads and are in rural areas where there is no running water for the toilets,” he lamented. Uncle Paul advises that other alternatives to selling liquor should be found. “We are not saying people should not drink but we should not impoverish others. Let us have shebeens controlled.” Whatever the arguments might be, the shebeen industry is growing in the country and some people have argued that they (today’s shebeens) have lost the glory and magic of the original township versions. Anyway, times have changed and the patrons’ needs must have changed too. Besides, shebeens are a form of cultural expression and culture is not static. * Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, describes the word shebeen thus: Chiefly in Ireland and Scotland, a shebeen is an illicit bar or club where excisable alcoholic beverages are sold without a licence. Shebeens are also common in southern Africa and Kenya, where they are run by local people who sometimes compete for customers with other places by increasing the strength of their brew, even by adding poisonous chemicals or pieces of rubber tire. In America, the word shebeen saw general use by Irish immigrants who worked in the anthracite patches of Pennsylvania. One of the leaders of the Molly Maguires was a shebeen-keeper, hanged in Scranton. The word is of Anglo-Irish origin, though its etymology is obscure. The original word referred to ‘mugful’.

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