Shebeens’ dreams go up in smoke

There are only four entry points to Sharpeville, a township situated between the two large industrial towns of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging in southern Gauteng. They all connect to one road, simply referred to as Main Road by the residents.

Sharpeville is still largely divided along apartheid lines – there is a small third for isiZulu-speakers, and the rest for Sesotho-speaking Basotho groups.

Just off Main Road where the Basothong shops are, you will find Malefane “Dutch” Kopa’s shebeen. At 79, Kopa uses crutches, has a grey beard and wears a navy blue Windhoek Lager cap.

Dutch, as everyone calls him, uses the crutches to help him balance when he stands up, but seems to walk easily without them.

As a shebeen owner, he will be affected by the department of health’s draft public smoking laws, which will prohibit any indoor smoking, even in purpose-built, closed-off smoking areas.

Set distance
The proposed legislation also states that smoking will only be allowed more than 10m from a door, a walkway or a window and, if implemented as it is, tavern and shebeen owners would have to enforce the new legislation.

“I don’t see how [health minister Aaron] Motsoaledi plans to implement that,” an animated Kopa says. “My neighbour’s house is less than five metres away. I mean, look at where your car is parked, it would be difficult for another car to drive past, let alone find a space 10 metres from a house.”

Kopa’s family was one of the first to be relocated to Sharpeville in 1957 from Top Location, an interracial residential area perceived as being too close to white areas.

There, Kopa was the drummer in the famous African jazz band the Sharptown Swingsters, a position central to how he would later become a shebeen owner.

“It wasn’t like now where people buy fridge loads of alcohol and spirits, place a sign outside that reads ‘tavern’ and start to sell. We had to hide,” he says.

Musical meeting place
From 1957 to 1972, Kopa’s two-roomed house in Sharpe­ville was the meeting place for the Sharptown Swingsters. The band rehearsed every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday after work and sometimes until dawn. During rehearsals they would talk politics, oppression and current affairs.

All they wanted was to play some music, have fun and drink some beers, so Kopa decided to start smuggling in a few cases for each rehearsal. Songs were composed and recorded there.

“My shebeen was started by friendship,” he says with a wistful smile.

He remembers how at first he was forced to buy alcohol from the municipal liquor store a few kilometres from his house. But it was not long before he stopped because the police’s liquor squad would wait for him to pay for his beer, confiscate it when he left the municipal office and fine him.

“That’s when we decided to leave in the dead of the night and drive to De Deur [a small dorp in the Midvaal area] to buy alcohol. The liquor squad was always on our backs so we would be forced to sleep in the open field sometimes or hide the alcohol at Tau Bazaar [one of the four entries into Sharpeville].”

‘Fun song’
Kopa sits on one of the plastic chairs outside his shebeen and starts to hum the tune of the Sharptown Swingsters’ first song, V-blues, and then a song made famous by Stimela and Ray Phiri as Whispers in the Deep.

Kopa calls it Kawumphinde Mzala. “Those guys made their own rendition of the song. We recorded it a long time ago, before them, ha rene rele jwaleng, re nwa, ho le monate [when we were out drinking and having a good time],” he says.

The original version of the song was in Sesotho – Hao rephethe motswala (Another round of drinks, friend) – but when the Swingsters turned it into a song, they decided to translate it into isiZulu, Kawumphinde Mzala. “It was a fun song for us,” he says.

From 1973, Kopa turned his fun-time shebeen into a business venture. With its proceeds and those from his job, he was able to extend his house and, over time, to build three rooms for his shebeen in his backyard, and take care of his six children. 

His music afforded him and his band the opportunity to travel the world. Kopa says he played in Botswana, Zambia, England and the Netherlands. They would be smuggled out of South Africa in a small aircraft, flying below the radar, until they were in a neighbouring country, where they would charter a larger plane.

Pensioner clientele
Kopa still serves a clientele of close friends. Most of his customers are pensioners with an average age of 65. He has turned one of the shebeen rooms into a smoking area. He says, if the regulation to prohibit indoor smoking is passed, he would lose the little clientele he has left.

The president of Gauteng Liquor Forum, Linda Madida, told the Mail & Guardian that the proposed legislation was not only impossible to implement in townships but would also be hard for people like Kopa, whose shebeens were their main source of income

He says registered taverns and shebeens would be hard hit because most people who wanted to drink and smoke would then spend their time in unregistered, underground shebeens where the law would not be enforced.

“The only thing these laws will achieve is to bring in more income for corrupt police officers who will use this regulation to solicit bribes,” Madida says.

Current smoking regulations are already strict and separating smoking areas from nonsmoking areas has cost registered owners a lot of money, he says.

‘No space’
He adds they would have liked more engagement from the department on how the proposed legislation would be enforced in townships where, in some areas, people are likely to be attacked or robbed if they walk too far from where they are drinking.

“Unfortunately that is the reality of townships – there is no space,” Madida says.

The department of health spokesperson, Joe Maila, says: “We must not always only look at the side of people who want to make money. Smoking affects people negatively and the repercussions are massive.”

He says the escalation of communicable disease is a serious matter, and South Africa is in line with international trends.

Other countries such as Australia have also taken a harsher stance against smoking.

“If we have to implement legislation to save lives then we will do so,” Maila says.

Potential police corruption
However, no new regulations have been implemented yet and the department is still going through the input given by different people and institutions.

Referring to the possibility of the new regulations breeding police corruption, Maila says corruption is a criminal offence and should be separated from the issue of regulating smoking.

But while the debate continues between the department of health and tavern and shebeens associations, Kopa continues to entertain his friends.

“This morning, three teachers came knocking at my door at 7am. They just wanted a place to have a good conversation and a good time because it is school holidays. This is what I am here for.”

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


Protective equipment for schools in KwaZulu-Natal goes ‘missing’

Without protective equipment, schools in uMlazi, Pinetown and Zululand won’t meet the already delayed deadline for reopening

The statue of Louis XVI should remain forever handless

A statue of the French king in Louisville, Kentucky was damaged during the protests against police killings. It should not be repaired

Press Releases

Empowering his people to unleash their potential

'Being registered as an AGA(SA) means you are capable of engineering an idea and turning it into money,' says Raymond Mayekisa

What is an AGA(SA) and AT(SA) and why do they matter?

If your company has these qualified professionals it will help improve efficiencies and accelerate progress by assisting your organisation to perform better

Mining company uses rich seam of technology to gear up for Covid-19

Itec Direct technology provides instant temperature screening of staff returniing to the workplace with no human contact

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday