Shebeens: What Are the Alternatives?

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By Andrew Matjila The storms of discontent on the handling of the shebeen question are still howling like old Katrina. They still have to die down and then someone, somewhere must come up with a solution that can satisfy not only shebeen kings and queens, but the general public as well. Hopefully, the Government will deal with the matter equitably, so that it should be put to rest once and for all. It is really embarrassing that Namibia should be involved in a long drawn-out argument on shebeens. Where did these shebeens hail from anyway? How come that independent African countries like South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, and many countries in the SADC region, are saddled with this malady? The word is actually a misnomer, because it doesn’t say what it means, or does it mean what it says? Where does it originate from? Like many words coined by black people in the early years of colonization, the word shebeen came about to describe a situation in the development of urbanization in the mining areas of South Africa such as Kimberly (discovery of diamonds – 1867) and the discovery of gold (Witwatersrand – 1885). The discovery of gold in particular, and the development of Johannesburg, were two events responsible for the urbanization of black people in very large numbers. In the north of Namibia, the import of cuca beer from Portuguese Angola started the business. It was in the eighteenth century, during the movement of people from the early Cape into the hinterland, that black people developed a taste for European liquor such as brandy, whiskey, gin, wine, rum and so on. White traders carried casks wherever they went.For the black people of that time, the names of liquor did not matter much, because they coined their own to suit their circumstances anyway: Molelo (Setswana – fireware – brandy, whiskey), ugologo – Zulu for brandy, whiskey, etc. (the word comes from the sound made by the bottle when pouring the liquor), or they simply called liquor “bojala ja sekgowa” (Setswana for – white man’s liquor). It was foreign mine-workers in Johannesburg who, when off duty on week-ends, resorted to visiting shanty settlements around the mines in search of a pastime. There they came to have a drink of “mqombothi” (African beer made from sorghum – ma-bele). Sorghum beer, also described as the LP (long play) in the latter years of the colonial period, took long to take effect, hence the name long play. Miners wanted to be fired up quickly so that they could get into the mood of the occasion. The right mood got them into stamping their feet, dancing, and forgetting the homesickness that gave them sleepless nights, longing for their loved ones back home. Only European liquor had the desired effect in much shorter time than homemade concoctions. Daring black women soon established themselves as service providers of good time, dishing out “the staff that dignifies a man and stupefies a woman” – whiskey to the reader (mark you – the terminology of those years, not mine). The irony here is that the women of that time involved in the trade were not only brave and daring, but were normally big in size, seemingly tailored to the occasion physically and mentally, to compel their customers to address them as “Auntie” so-and-so. Thirsty workers and miners off duty on a Friday night knew where to go to get soused. “Barbertson or Mbamba,” “Skokiaan or kill me quick,” “Sebapa le Masenke” (after drinking this one a man crawls along the corrugated iron shack), “mampuru/mampoer” (moonshine), and many other experimental drinks concodted by the aunties to make money, found ready throats from the scores of men and women populating Johannesburg. These aunties soon had connections with poor white hobos called “amagweba” (one who buys liquor for blacks), who supplied them with European liquor for a fee. This is what popularized the drinking dens even more to miners. “Aauntie so-and-so keeps the good stuff, not only mqombothi,” the men would whisper to prospective clientele. As black people had no recreational facilities or bars where they could sit and enjoy themselves, the shanties became the most popular drinking places. The word “bina’ in Setswana or Sesotho means to dance. “Re a bina” means we are dancing. These seedy shanty drinking places became known as “the places to dance”, where everyone spent their money and their time. The dances at such places became known as “marabi”, where men danced with women. Legend has it that as the aunties were mostly Setswana-speaking people, mine workers who spoke Zulu could not pronounce the Setswana “re a bina” tack, but could only say “siya bina.” As time when by, the goings on in the shantytowns reached the ears of the authorities, and police began to carry out raids. It was from such raids that the word “shebeen” emerged. When asked what they doing, revelers would answer “re a bina baas” or “Siya bina baas” (we are dancing boss). To the white men “siya bina” soon became “we arrested ten natives at the shea bina”. The word later became a permanent, concocted and bizarre name “sheabina,” which later was standardized to “shebeen.” The word shebeen is a recent Europeanized version of the original “Shabini” or Shabeen. It merely means a place where black people could come together (and they had no other facility) for a drink, or simply to socialize. Unfortunately for many who had left wives and children in the rural areas of homelands across borders, these shebeens soon turned into a nightmare, and milked them of all their money. With the growing demand for entertainment for black people in Johannesburg, locations such as Prospect Township, George Goch, and many other settlements south of Johannesburg proper, established dancing halls, and shebeens competed with legal liquor establishments in the city. They swept “plaasjappies” (country boys) off their feet, and many of them never went back home to family and friends. Others married second more modern city wives in Johannesburg, and went to the unsophisticated” home wives” once a year when on leave. To this day, this practice is still carried on in Johannesburg and perhaps even in Windhoek. The word “omboroto” has relevance in this regard. Consequently, with their development, shebeens earned their notoriety for breaking marriages, spreading disease, attracting criminal elements and even creating them, creating prostitution, loafing, laziness, smuggling with drugs especially marijuana, poverty and slavery. A common way of slavery in the shebeens was the keeping of people (men and women) known as “seepa mokoti”, a Sesotho name meaning hole-diggers. These were destitute people who were kept by the auntie as servants without pay, who simply depended on her “hospitality.” They got free food and slept in the back yard. Their work was as the name says, digging holes to hide the bottles of brandy, gin, wine, beer and whiskey upon delivery. The aunties became rich of course, but were often arrested for bootlegging, if a “good” black policeman did not tip them off in advance about the impending police raid. But as time would have it, things became modernized in the shebeen trade. A customer could buy a tot of brandy or a nippie, half jack, a straight or a quart, called “khoto/khodo”. In the Highveld, i.e. the Johannesburg area, black people did not go for drinks such as wine as these were known as ‘Madolo/man-gwele”, meaning knees, or “mazinyo” meaning teeth. Sweet wines, when taken in large quantities, gave the drinker painful joints especially in the knees the following morning, and were therefore not favoured in the golden city. Moreover, wine was said to be too sweet and favoured only but Coloureds, who lost their front teeth because of it. No, shebeens sold brandy,gin, whiskey and beer, “The stuff that…” A nip of brandy sold for five bob (shillings) (50 cents today, a half jack sold for ten bob (ten shillings – 1 Nam Dollar today), a straight single sold for fifteen bob (your N$1,50 today), and a quart sold for one pound five (your N$2,50 today). It was during the latter years of the twentieth century i.e. from the 1940’s onwards, that shebeens became a nightmare for the South African lawmakers. On the one side, there were black people who could acquire a special dispensation from the liquor laws, called exemption to buy liquor. On the other side there were the white hobos who exploited blacks when buying liquor for them, charging high fees. A bottle of brandy cost almost double the price for a black drinker when bought for by a hobo. A teacher or any other black man who qualified for exemption from the liquor laws, was allowed to enter a bottle store and buy 1 spirit, 2 wines, 4 malts or more, depending on his exemption as well as his pocket. Sorry, women were not allowed. For the ordinary black man in the street, to have a drink meant whispering to a white hobo sitting on a park bench as you went past, and dropping a well wrapped ten shilling note four paces away. “Bassie, nip, brandy asse-blief.” (Boss, a nip of brandy please). One hour later you came past again. This time he had a wrapped newspaper on the bench and you grabbed it without a word and ran to the nearest toilet to swallow it in three gulps. At times the hobo was not in the mood to play fair, and simply put an empty half-jack bottle in the wrapping. You cried and swore when you discovered the trickery, but what could you do? Attacking a white man relaxing on the council’s park bench was a serious offence that could unleash serious consequences. I must say that there was irony in the manner in which the Liquor Act was abolished by the Government of the Republic of South Africa. When blacks thought that one aspect of apartheid would have been to tighten the liquor laws even further, with harsher penalties for offenders, the then Minister of Justice Dr Erasmus recommended that the law be scrapped forthwith. However, the provision for separate entrances at bottle stores was maintained. And so, in early 1961, amid new compositions by the black song stars of those days, bottle stores were eventually thrown open to black customers. Mariam Mekeba was then singing “Imali yami iphelele eshabini” (All my money got finished in the shebeen). Others sang “Umagumede” the shebeen queen auntie Magumede, “Yekel utshwala Phakamile” (Stop drinking Phakamile), “Boyela gae Matshidiso “(Come back home Matshidiso), and many other hits of those now distant days that either condemned alcohol, or condemned shebeens. Many men and women are still alive today who remember very clearly how everything came from Johannes-burg into the Old Location in Windhoek, or indeed elsewhere in Southern Africa. New styles in clothing, songs of the day, even haircuts, ladies dresses (still remember taffeta, Queen’s coming hats) were all seen displayed at shebeens because there were no facilities available to showcase our beautiful ladies of that age. Every story, every new song, every court case, every birth, every death, every price increase, every new car bought, every stranger in town or every political move, was first heard in the shebeen. Indeed, the shebeen was the see all, hear all, do all, give all and the best secret political meeting place of that era. Now that we are free, or are we? Do we really all believe that we ARE free? I believe we are. Well then, let us get our act together. I have said it many times over and over again, that, many of our people strongly need re-education. Some call it counselling, but it comes down to the same process. After independence, we were all too much in a hurry, full of the excitement of being in charge of things, that we began to think as individuals, and not as a team. Some of us started thinking, with great excitement, how wonderful things would soon be in a new Namibia. And, we soon forgot the most crucial issue, viz. A people who had become conditioned to living prescriptively, according to a particular system for many years, are not capable of blotting out the past from their minds when things change overnight. Even after sixteen years of independence, we are still talking of empowerment that still has to become a reality. Many issues that affect our daily lives, our social structures, yes our very being, are still to be thought out seriously. We need all-round planners who should advise the Government on how to deal with matters affecting the poor, and not just political plans because these don’t always work. On the shebeen quandary, for quandary it is, we could look at one of the medium, to long term solutions: – How many shebeens are there in Katutura for instance? – How many shebeens should there be in Katutura? – At a rough guestimate, each section of Katutura requires two modern pubs e.g. Owambo location 2: Damara 2, Gemengde 2 and so on. – If the whole of Katutura merits ten pubs, then the sixty or so shebeens now in existence should be organized by the Shebeen Association to form a company of entrepreneurs who should all invest their money in the ten pubs that qualify for establishment. Each of them could then automatically become shareholders. – The shareholders can employ the services of qualified managers, barmen and women, and even provide light meals on the premises, to encourage patrons to eat before drinking. Shebeen drinkers do not always eat before taking liquor. -.Shareholders could then own decent and high-standard drinking places regulated not only by the law, but also by good Christian morals. Who would have a problem with such establishments? No one in Namibia. Even ministers would have no problem patronizing decent places. No minister goes into a shebeen at this moment. – Shebeen owners throughout the country should be organized and given the opportunity to become better than before independence. They should know that as free men and women, they should raise their aspirations and become more ambitious. Calling them names or laying the blame for all manner of social ills at their doorstep will not solve the problem. We should bear in mind that at the end of the day, they do not put the alcohol in the mouths of the drunkards. They only sell the stuff. Besides, at one stage of our history, they used to attend to our needs. So let it not just be a matter of: “way with the old girlfriend, I have a new one.” No. We express our concerns as citizens of a country that is still crawling like a six-month-old baby. We can ill-afford a society that seeks to thrive on alcohol, for, then, we have no future surely. Our shebeen owners must take cognizance of this fact. Let’s get down to business. Consolidation of shebeens to establish them into business enterprises requires that our people become aware first and foremost. We live in times when we are free and can do better than be content with selling two cases of beer a day and call that “making a living for my children.” Shebeens, why? Namibia does not need them at all. Decent pubs where even ministers can walk in and have a cold beer, yes! We have opportunities in our country. Let’s use them and not cry crocodile tears. There’s plenty of money around to establish real dignified legal businesses, even with liquor. And, let’s not lie to ourselves that its only for ministers or “high bugs”. Every Tom, Dick and Harry has a chance. Let’s use it please!