The call from the shebeens: Settle the beer strike

That’s the clear message coming from Soweto shebeens. Shebeen patrons this week expressed a wish to return to the good old days as their drinking wells run dry as a result of the month old strike of 6 000 SAB workers and the call for a beer boycott. A snap survey in Soweto showed a remarkable decline in beer sales.
Patrons have turned to spirits and wine. Some people are keeping away from shebeens out of fear following Fawu’s boycott call Soweto shebeens were deserted on Wednesday evening, a sight that belied the usual mid-week drinking sessions that continue late into the night. 

‘‘I am scared of selling beer, although I do not know what this boycott is all about,” said Tabitha Letsoalo, a well-known shebeen queen. As we settled down for whisky and soda, Tabitha said she would be closing shortly “because tsotsis are taking advantage of the situation”. Shebeeners are scared after reports that groups of youths went on the rampage attacking shebeen queens and smashing beer bottles. In Orlando West a bootlegger and shebeener were attacked and beer worth more than R4 000 was smashed. 

Lucy Mahlangu, who runs a shebeen known as Ha-Mmathabo, watched in horror last Friday as more than 200 youths smashed 100 cases of beer in her yard and in the street. ‘‘I tried to plead with the youths that I had heeded the call and I would not sell the beer until I have been told to do so, but they would not listen,” said Mahlangu. ‘‘They broke down the garage door and smashed cases of beer. Others removed a freezer containing beer from my bedroom and threw it into the street,” she said. She sustained a cut on her right ankle and had bruises on her left arm when the rampaging youths attacked her with beer bottles and sjamboks. ‘‘If the striking workers could have approached us it would have been better. Now they just issue orders and we are expected to carry them out,” she said. 

Bheki Mhlongo, a well-known Orlando West bootlegger, lot more than 200 cases of beer when the boycott-supporting crowd invaded his place. . ‘‘I do not work for the breweries so I do not know how I got involved in that dispute,” said Mhlongo. A member of Fawu, who did not want to be named, said although the union called for “the most disciplined action” at the start of the strike, the longer the strike continued the less the union could guarantee control over strikers. In another development, two SAB workers were killed on Wednesday when they demonstrated against the sale of beer in Zola township. 

According to Fawu the workers were killed by a gangster who was hired by ‘‘bootleggers” in the area. Said Puleng Ndebele, another well-known Soweto to shebeen queen and mother to film star Muntu of eLollipop fame: “I have resigned myself to watching TV with my kids and waiting until these people are over with their dispute.” In other parts of Soweto shebeeners are selling beer only to their best customers. 

‘‘I still have some stock left and this is only reserved for my own people,” said a Meadowlands shebeener who did not want her name mentioned. In a well-known Diepkloof shebeen patronised by journalists, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, it was action as usual. “Once you lose customers it’s not easy to get them back, so I have kept something for my people,” said the shebeener, who did not want to be named. “These people should understand that we make a living off liquor and we will be left stranded, when they go back to their jobs after the strike,” she said. 

Added Moss, a patron of the establishment: ‘‘How do we get involved in the strike? We sup· port their demand but they should not involve us in their dispute. · ‘‘Do you mean if people who work at Mobil go on strike we should not buy petrol, or are you going to stop passing cars and drain the petrol,” asked Moss as the house burst into laughter. “Hoi khona (no guys), we can’t stop buying mealie-meal if people at the milling company go on strike,” he said. ‘‘Get me right fellows, we do support our brothers, but strategies need to be worked out.” 

The National Tavern Associations announced yesterday that they intend to start selling beer following a meeting on Wednesday night with Fawu, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and youth organisations at Century Plaza in Hillbrow. NTA president Lucky Michaels said his organisation will continue to support the striking workers in whatever way it could, provided it was not destructive to its members. “We have kept out for two weeks with the hope that Fawu and the SAB would solve their problems, but now we are dying in the process,” he said. 

*Last night there were no signs of an end to the beer strike . Fawu said the two workers were killed after demonstrating against the sale of beer in Zola had been attacked by thugs hired by ‘‘bootleggers” and called on SAB to disassociate themselves from the incident. The company re¬sponded by calling on the union to restrain members who were allegedly intimidating shebeen owners. - Phil Molefe

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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