Where have all the shebeens gone?

2011-03-11 12:58

I met an age-beaten old lady, who refused to be ignored, amid the afternoon rumpus of a dying day’s homeward rush on a commuter train. She was on the job, selling boiled peanuts and other treats, and I was craving a snooze.

Loud and languid, she lamented that “shebeens are not what they used to be”.

Having failed at pretending to be asleep, I listened to her.

“These days you need an expensive licence to run a shebeen,” she said.

Then, with a touch of resignation in her voice, she added: “Nowadays boys carry guns when they go drinking. What if they start fighting? It’s too much trouble!”

The whole affair sent me on a nostalgic trip.

Having grown up in a shebeen, I remember them as something more than the neighbourhood watering hole.

My mother’s shebeen, like many across the darkie world, was a venue to multiple consensus-forming platforms on our block.

Friday afternoons attracted factory workers with a taste for political debates and impromptu toyi-toying.

Here the hated shop stewards were cussed at, along with the exploitative employer or the then government.

I really first tasted politics and things like the Freedom Charter – and its apparent faults as an “ahistorical formulation” – when I was about nine years old and Mandela was soon to be released.

As the struggle songs would give way to avant-garde jazz, one of the old timers would roll a joint (the legal variety that comes in yellow packaging), and the puffing madala would burst out, complaining that the 1955 charter fails to make a case for “restorative justice”.

This would cause a further fracas about whether it distinguishes between historical aggressors and victims of that aggression.

It was only when I entered higher learning that I recognised those shebeen patrons as examples of what Italian writer Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals” – vernacular geniuses alive to the call of their historical hungers.

But the colourful days were the rotating monthly meetings of the block’s burial societies.

They brought together our block’s family heads and breadwinners in a charged democratic moment.

Apart from thrashing out various problems plaguing our community, the meetings were for administering the communal funds that paid for what would otherwise be unaffordable funerals.

Back then, big banks hadn’t started cutting into the funeral-scheme market. Now that they have, they have sunk the burial society as a unique lekgotla in black neighbourhoods.

These days, branded pubs have taken over the ’hood.

There, as one colleague bemoans: “You can’t even let your child speak to any ‘uncle’. We used to sit on their laps and our mothers didn’t need to fear for our safety.”

Now the old lady stands in the train, with her hands on her hips as she insists on being heard.

This is where she hosts her Dashiki Dialogues.

percy.mabandu@citypress.co.za


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