Shebeens: Criminal Element Cannot Be Wished Away

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Shebeens or informal liquor trading places serve as a means of
livelihood for the owners and those depending on them. In many cases, the owners are unemployed and solely rely on the shebeen businesses for a living. Those negatively affected by the operations of shebeens argue that such businesses are not worth the trouble they give.
CHARLES TJATINDI recently spent an evening in the company of
shebeen patrons and owners and compiled the following report.

WALVIS BAY

Selma Sheya softly hums to herself as she cleans drinking glasses out of a bowl of water placed on the bar counter. At regular intervals, she would stop and raise a glass against the light, inspecting every inch of it for cleanliness. It’s an end of the month weekend and she is expecting patrons to flood the shebeen in a few hours.
“There will be no time to do this later. When the rush starts, everyone wants to have a clean glass to drink from … you know how these people are,” she chuckles.

Selma, like many others, is employed as an assistant at a local shebeen in Walvis Bay’s Kuisebmond suburb. She does not earn much as an assistant, although she jokes that the shebeen will fall apart if she is to resign one day.

Fortunately for the shebeen owner, there is no chance of that happening – at least for the time being. As Selma puts it, she is immensely grateful for her job at the shebeen and would not do anything to jeopardise it.

“It’s the best you can find as someone with no proper schooling. This job pays the bills, and puts food on the table. It’s not the ultimate job, but under the circumstances – it’s the best one can get,” she says.

Selma’s views are not limited to herself – others in the same boat as her concur.

Ndahafa Shikongeni, another assistant at the same shebeen, notes she is lucky to have her current job. She says as a single mother of three, with the youngest being a few months old, the job means everything to her.

As the evening wears on, patrons and revellers start filling the shebeen. Selma recognises a few faces. They are regulars at this shebeen. She watches as they pick their favourite spot – a tiny table in the corner next to the jukebox. Being payday, the jukebox queue is long and the patrons have to wait for some time before their song comes up.
Such is the life at shebeens, places where patrons meet to socialise after a hard day’s work. If the shebeen owner is in luck, patrons will part with more than just a little of the hard-earned cash on a night out at the drinking hole – money that comes in handy for the owner. With such money, he will pay off his assistants, order more stock and still have a few cents to spare for his other livelihood expenses.

“I manage to send my kids to school with money I make at the shebeen. I would never have been able to afford that amount of money if it was not for the shebeen. It really helps in paying the bills – especially if you have regular clients,” said one shebeen owner, who refused to give his name or that of his business.

Those living next to shebeens are singing a different tune, however. For them, shebeens are a nuisance as they not only cause noise pollution, but also are to blame for a spate of violence usually associated with excessive intake of alcohol.

“How can you manage to send your kids to school with money made from a shebeen if the kid does not get time to study because of the noise coming from the shebeen? It may be true, but we struggle to sleep almost everyday due to the noise coming from shebeens nearby,” countered Adelheid Namases, a resident of Kuisebmond.

Two years ago, shebeen owners held a mass protest against the regional police’s decision to close down some shebeen businesses at the coast, which culminated in a national protest march in Windhoek. The shebeen owners then complained about how the closure of shebeens will impact negatively on their livelihoods, as some argued that they were entirely dependant on these shebeens to eke out a living. Prompted by the demands from shebeen owners, relevant stakeholders present then reached an agreement with shebeen owners, which inter alia stipulated mandatory operating times for the shebeens.

According to the Erongo Police Regional Commander, Deputy Commissioner Festus Shilongo, however, some shebeen owners had appealed against the stipulated closing time. The closing time was initially set at midnight, but some shebeen owners, especially those with special liquor licences appealed the decision. A decision was eventually granted in their favour, which allowed them to operate until four the next morning. According to Shilongo, this was not a good decision, as alcohol-related crime and lawlessness has been on the increase ever since.

Over the past few months alone, numerous crimes relating to the excessive intake of alcohol has been reported to the police. In some instances, friends end up attacking one another and couples turn against each other leading to fistfights – as their ‘sessions’ at these drinking holes takes their toll. Incidences have also been reported where an intoxicated partner would go home and physically abuse his/her partner after an outing at a shebeen.

Families, relationships, and even employment opportunities are forgone almost daily as a result of taking to the bottle, argues those against such businesses.

“My relationship with the father of my two children suffered a lot as he was never at home, and when he did come home, he was usually drunk. How do you build a future with a person like that? You can’t plan anything at all – it was a waste of time. I wasted good years that would have borne me more rewards had I had the right partner,” says a bitter Mona-Lisa Namases.

She, like many others, feels that the benefits derived from the operation of shebeens are not worth the trouble they cause. The Erongo Police head could not agree more.

“Shebeens are good business and usually serve a noble cause such as providing for families. However, the criminal element cannot be wished away. It needs to be addressed in the same vein that we address the benefits,” he says.
Shilongo feels that it is every shebeen owner’s responsibility to ensure that his undertaking remains safe for its patrons, and to maintain the orderly conduct of patrons as well.

“Since it is your own business, you know that if anything fails you will be losing an income. Therefore, it is imperative that you ensure orderly conduct at your specific business. If your business remains the centre of criminal activities for a long time, chances are that it will be closed down and you will be without an income altogether,” notes Shilongo.

It’s almost midnight, as Selma and Ndahafa the two shebeen assistants, and their manager prepare to close for the night. Since they do not have a special liquor licence, they are by law compelled to close at midnight. A few minutes before closing time, Selma switches the jukebox off leaving the revellers who were jiving to the sounds of the Onyoka Concert Group clamouring for more. She weathers some mild protests from the patrons, as they claim their money back. Fortunately for her, she has dealt with similar situations before, as she calmly obliges and pushes some coins into the ‘group leader’s’ fist. Recognising the gesture, he quickly clenches his fist and leaves alongside his cohorts. Mission accomplished!

At exactly 24h03, the huge doors of the shebeen close. For those that frequent such places, the night is still young and plans are being made as to which shebeen would be next in line. An indecisive bunch would opt to rather take the party home to their respective apartments, while those that have seemingly become good at this game would focus their attention on the outlets that closes at 04h00 in the morning. Once there, it takes them a few seconds to eye the place out and to blend with the crowd of revellers that has been partying the night away since sundown.

It is normally here where fights are bound to erupt, as hordes of people that would have been drinking at different places around town are all of a sudden forced by circumstances to share a venue. According to the Police Deputy Commissioner, some of these places are usually the size of a double family garage and the influx results in patrons being cramped without breathing space – literally.

“We have a drug resistant TB strain, and other infectious diseases. How does one breathe in such a place is just beyond me,” he says.

Police vehicles can be seen burning the midnight oil as they lurk around these ‘grave yard shift’ shebeens. As Shilongo puts it, such patrols are necessary as something is usually bound to happen that would need the intervention of the law enforcers.

“I am going to seriously appeal against the operating time of these shebeens. It is just not safe to have such a place open until the next morning. I am not going to leave it here,” concluded Shilongo.

As one drives past a shebeen the next morning, empty beer bottles scattered around the premises are obvious reminders of a night that was. If you look closer in some instances, condoms – some used – lie among the heaps of bottle wreckages and a mud of urine. One is left to wonder if such dirt would be removed in time for the next session, which lies in waiting for the evening. The conclusion would most probably be one – only time will tell, as the countdown to the evening begins … and counting!

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