​Rise of the shebeen queens

Family tradition: Fanny Mokoena started in the industry helping her sister run a shebeen while still at school. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

Family tradition: Fanny Mokoena started in the industry helping her sister run a shebeen while still at school. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

“My mother accepted her life, and I suppose, so did the other shebeen queens; they chose this life and accommodated the hazards. My mother wanted a better life for her children, a kind of insurance against poverty by trying to give me a prestige profession, and if necessary would go to jail whilst doing it.” — An excerpt from William “Bloke” Modisane’s autobiography, Blame Me on History. 

Born in 1953, Sibongile Tshabalala grew up in Soweto watching her mother and grandmother brew beer illegally for income. In her preteen years, she witnessed several police raids that resulted in her maternal figures being arrested under the apartheid Liquor Act of 1927.

In 1967, aged 14, she followed the same path. She was arrested for keeping the family business running and was held in the isolation cells in the Women’s Jail. Today, an interview in which she tells her story can be seen at the museum at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.

Before the 1930s, African women struggled to find work. They needed an income, and preferably from something that would allow them to be at home to run their households. This source of income was determined by the skills they already had, one of which was brewing beer. It was a standard domestic task for many African women in the rural areas. Many women could brew beer because of its use in most ritual practices. This skill has been passed on through the generations and from the rural areas to the townships.

First they mix King Korn with mielie meal, sugar and yeast. Boiling water is added to the mixture in a plastic bucket or a calabash. The mixture is then stirred with a wooden spoon and left to ferment. The next day, it is pushed through a sieve in a motion similar to handwashing clothes.

Liquor Act of 1927

At first, the brew was targeted at migrant workers who could not afford Western beer or preferred umqombothi. But the growth of shebeens was boosted by the Liquor Act of 1927, which did not allow African people to have liquor licences or to enter licensed premises.

Women defied this and continued to house the underground establishments where Africans could consume liquor — after paying an entrance fee of five cents. These women came to be known as shebeen queens — women who transformed their homes into a place where a beer came with the option of entertainment, cigarettes and a plate of pap and vleis when the sun set.

A shebeen queen’s story

Retired shebeen queen Fanny Mokoena’s involvement in the brewing business began in the 1960s during her school years, when she lived with her older sister who ran a mobile shebeen in Meadowlands. She would accompany her older sister when she sold food to mineworkers.

“In the morning, we sold sandwiches and at lunch it was cooked food.”

The mineworkers then asked Mokoena’s sister to sell them alcohol every fortnight when they got paid.

“Oh, it was illegal! We weren’t even allowed to enter bottle stores, so we would ask people to buy us the alcohol,” the now 66-year-old said. “After school, I would stand outside liquor spots and ask people who were walking into the spots to buy me the alcohol for a small fee. When they returned, I would wrap the case in a white cloth, get on a bus and to get to my neighbourhood. When I reached my neighbourhood I would carry the unsuspecting white bundle on my head until I reached home”

In most cases, the sisters were not suspects because their upfront trade was food and they only bought and sold the Castle, Black Label and Lion quarts every two weeks.

“It was never suspected that we sold alcohol because we sold food. We bought on demand,” she said.

But, when she was 18, Mokoena was found in the possession of alcohol and was held in custody overnight. She admitted guilt and was released after a fine was paid.

After her sister’s death in 1987, Mokoena took over the business and became a shebeen queen in her own right. Fanny’s Restaurant and Caterers is still running. But the retired shebeen queen has used her rich past in the industry to combat alcohol abuse by founding the organisation Liquor Traders Against Crime.

Resistance and concerns

Shebeens also grew from being places of entertainment and hospitality into favoured meeting places for political activists because the domestic space gave customers a feeling of home. Business was good and, in some cases, shebeen queens had a higher income than the average man working in the manufacturing industry.

But the growth resulted in increased visibility and unwanted attention. Police raids began and, when these were successful, all the alcohol would be confiscated and shebeen queens would be jailed or given large fines, which would cut deeply into their profits.

To combat the raids, diepamokoti (those who dig holes) came to life. They would dig holes where beer could be hidden during police raids. But it wasn’t enough. Shebeen queens still had to consider the time in which beer could be brewed. So they came up with a beverage that could be prepared in the short intervals between police raids. They would add methylated spirits to the beer to increase its potency without having to wait for it to brew. And so in areas where police raids took place the beer became stronger.

The shortcomings catalysed by such spaces cannot be ignored. During this prohibition period, shebeens enabled alcohol abuse, an epidemic that cannot be erased from the history of South Africa’s drinking culture.

From as early as 1793, farm owners in the wine making regions of the Cape developed the dop system — farm workers received cheap wine daily as wages. This was justified as an incentive for their labour but it aggravated alcoholism.

A similar scheme was adopted in mining hostels. Mine owners would let labourers brew their own beer and sell it in the hostels.

The 1908 Native Beer Act prohibited anyone except municipalities from brewing beer. By 1942, about 45 municipalities had beer halls. But the women kept on brewing. Things came to a head in 1959 when the shebeen queens of Cato Manor in Durban rose up and attacked the beerhalls.

When the Liquor Act was introduced, it was because employers began to see how inebriation had a negative effect on productivity and not necessarily because of any concerns for the workers’ health.

A combination of free-flowing alcohol and the frustrations of being black under apartheid rule often resulted in violent fights because tensions rose easily.

Shebeen queens were not always looked upon favourably by other women. In 1976, before the Soweto uprisings, women and children took part in beer protests because the income of their husbands and fathers was being spent on alcohol.

Despite providing a source of income and independence for countless women and their families, one could argue that the shebeen culture took the baton from the apartheid government and white capitalists and used alcohol consumption to impede the rebellion of black workers and left an indelible mark on the functioning of families.

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