The shebeens of suburbia

‘The white people here don’t really want to see three or four black people in or close to their yards,” says Senzo, lying back in an open park near Saxonwold in Johannesburg. “It perks them up. Marty’s may have been on 11th Avenue or Cotswold Drive [in Saxonwold],” he says. “But rest assured, it is no more.”

The place I went to some years ago for my suburban shebeen experience may or may not have been Marty’s. It was more Parkwood than the now fabled Saxonwold shebeen. But as I was driving around 11th Avenue, trying to jog my memory, a refurbished house and its surrounds felt strangely familiar.

The first visit was a Friday. The visage of “Marty”, the shebeen queen, is hazy. She may have been dressed in the pink uniform of a domestic worker.

The shebeen was a passage in a converted garage, a hallway between the madam’s house and Marty’s own back room.

I remember white people, unseen. There was either a madam in the house, turning a blind eye, or some other sense that this was illicit. Perhaps it was in the way Marty would flit between housework — disappearing to tend to a pot on the boil — and small talk with her customers without breaking her stride.

She was essential to the pace, vibe and function of the space. So much so that whatever housework she was attending to at around suppertime might have been compromised to some degree. Her stock was in a rectangular freezer inside her half-opened room. Her customers — a mix of other domestics, cab drivers, gardeners and other stragglers the cat had dragged in — were in that liminal space of being perfect strangers turned instant friends by a casual acquaintance with the matriarch.

Marty’s speciality was a “longtom” (440ml bottle) of any kind: quick to cool and slow to heat, also chosen because a 24-pack was easier to lug around for restocking. In addition, should she need to evacuate the premises for any reason, her customers could tuck the unopened ones in their bags and pretend they didn’t know her.

If there was ever “sound” at Marty’s, it was the sound of half marvelling at the strangeness of it all: the throwback to apartheid South Africa in a time of supposed freedom.

“Gentrification and World Cup fever put paid to a lot of things,” says Senzo, still trying to work out if we are talking about the same place.

“It’s not like the cops rode roughshod on the streets. No. Sure, you’d get the odd raid, where the stock was confiscated or your beer would get carefully drained down the pavement, but generally these spaces gave way to new property owners, new money and new dreams.”

To Senzo, as perhaps it should, gentrification is not gentrification, but a whirlwind phenomenon tied to “Philip”, whose effects are still being felt today.

The place that occupied Marty’s seems to have been turned into some kind of office, with a completely new structure built in its yard.

“Look, I think Marty actually had permission to sell [liquor],” remembers Vusi, another old customer, who is seated with Senzo.

“Her madam actually allowed her

to do it, but I don’t think she was always in the house or in the house at all. There used to be a few shebeens here, but you know what people who drink are like. They are rowdy; even when you tell them to keep it down, they don’t. So that caused a lot of problems.”

Vusi remembers the structure as a strange little house — “yayifreshinyana, futhi ingekho that fresh [it was kind of swanky, but also a little rundown]”.

I only ever went to Marty’s twice. The friend who took me there I no longer speak to. A serial cultural anthropologist hellbent on subverting class barriers, trips to township shisanyamas were not for him. He wanted his kasi nostalgia right here where he lived.

Speaking about Marty’s as someone would speak of the good ol’ days, Senzo and his friends usually congregate in a park somewhere on the cusp of Parkwood and Saxonwold. They play dice games. There is a tennis court nearby, its clubhouse refurbished. The bottle caps on the ground around them are arranged into a column of flattened and oxidised shells.

Senzo recalls the story of James, who had occupied a bowling clubhouse nearby. James sold quarts of a popular South African-brewed beer. A pot-bellied man with a lopsided gait, his spot was noisier than Marty’s as it stood some distance away from a row of houses.

“Even then, around 2008 or 2009, James was just expensive,” says Senzo. “He was charging R13 for a quart in 2009.” James’s soundtrack of choice, probably a reflection of his customers, who came from across Gauteng to frequent his spot, was always township funk playing on cassette from his twin-tape hi-fi set.

“The nostalgia evoked by Steve Kekana and Nana Coyote’s Take Your Love and Keep It or Lazarus Kgagudi’s This Place Is Boring when looking out on to manicured greens is so particular it hasn’t been named yet,” Senzo says.

Senzo says there are two ways that a suburban shebeen could work, one of which was through a tacit or mutually beneficial agreement between madam and domestic worker.

“That would be out of an understanding that your madam knows that you earn next to nothing, so she’d let you earn an extra income and be complicit if need be,” he says.

“The other would be the continued occupation of a building past its owners’ knowledge or concern.”

The third type, of course, which several people claim exists in Saxonwold, is a building leased and used for reasons other than residential purposes — a pop-up bar, if you will.

Now, the totality of things happening behind suburban doors will stir your naive behind, but that is a tale best left for another day. However, several people with intimate know-ledge of the runnings of Saxonwold streets say there used to be a popular weekend pop-up shebeen run by a man who worked in the broadcast industry.

The guard and the patrolmen who recount the story say it was innocuous, a product of several years gone by, but others say as recently as last December 16 there was a “takeover” of sorts in Saxonwold, organised by a female entrepreneur known as Cheri yaseKasi.

“It was a proper set-up,” says one patron who attended. “With a bar, a lawn, but you could still bring your own cooler box. And your own camp chairs. I think it moves around a lot though, from one venue to the next.”

They are talking about Sunshine Shibambo’s Paraka pop-up party. Pictures on Twitter under the hashtag #Paraka display a marquee full of young, happy black souls lounging around makeshift tables with shades and sunny-looking drinks in tow.

It is a world removed from the hovels run by the likes of Marty and James, and it makes the anthropological search into suburban shebeens moot and antiquated.

The way I sees it, the distance between the township and the suburbs is the one in your head, really. 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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