Guest Column

When we booze, we lose

2017-02-12 00:01
Mandla Mandela arrived accompanied by people of Mvezo Village. Picture: Mbulelo Sisulu

Mandla Mandela arrived accompanied by people of Mvezo Village. Picture: Mbulelo Sisulu

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Simphiwe Sesanti

In his book, The House of Phalo: A History of the Xhosa People in the Days of Their Independence, JB Peires writes that many amaXhosa believe that their king, Ngqika, “sold the land in exchange for colonial assistance and a bottle of brandy”.

Even though Peires writes mitigatingly about Ngqika in this instance, this perception was based on the reality that the amaXhosa king had resigned himself to the white man’s alcohol, so much so that Peires further notes that Ngqika “purchased it, danced for it, sold his wives for it, and ultimately died of it”.

Peires crowns it by noting that “in the last years of his life [Ngqika] was a despised drunkard who had lost the love and respect of his people”.

Writing about Ngqika’s last miserable days, the national poet, SEK Mqhayi, in his book Abantu Besizwe: Historical and Biographical Writings, 1902-1944, notes that “the white man’s liquor, which is destroying the nation, to which [Ngqika] turned to drown his miseries, had no effect”.

This tragic picture came back to mind when two weeks ago City Press published a story about Mvezo chief Mandla Mandela’s efforts to ban alcohol abuse in his village.

Like Mqhayi before him, Mandela realises that the white man’s liquor is destroying the nation, and, instead of folding his arms, he is doing something about it.

Predictably, in some quarters his move has been linked to Mandela’s recent embrace of Islam, which forbids the consumption of alcohol.

But the revelation that Mandela’s campaign is traceable to the year 2008, long before he embraced Islam, works in his favour. Africans do not need Islam to realise that alcohol is destructive for them.

In fact, historical records reveal that Mandela’s move is moderate compared with what was done by the BaSotho king, Moshoeshoe.

Moshoeshoe did not seek to curb excessive use of European liquor, but banned it altogether, ordering that liquor found with anyone be taken from them and thrown out on the ground.

For those committed to the African renaissance idea, Chief Mandela’s opposition to alcohol is a welcome and commendable move that should be given support.

It is tragic, but a reality, that some of us are so trapped by poverty that we are insensitive to the fact that it is wrong to seek to desperately live while simultaneously killing others through selling alcohol, even if they do so voluntarily.

Equally true is that the liquor establishment has strategically entrenched itself by giving employment and hugely sponsoring sports activities.

So, those benefiting from these activities will certainly not be amused by Chief Mandela’s endeavours.

And to cap it all, Chief Mandela’s struggle is an uphill battle considering that many African political elites think that the more expensive and the older the whisky they buy, the more respectable they are to those they show off to, a clear indication of psychological incarceration.

So, haranguing and forcibly blocking people who make a living through liquor sales is not right, especially if it is true, as some people of Mvezo allege, that Chief Mandela stocks alcohol in his house for his friends’ entertainment.

There is a much better way in which Chief Mandela can undermine alcohol use by using his unique position as a chief.

Among the amaXhosa, liquor, especially the brandy that killed Ngqika, is now occupying a unique and indispensable position in the performance of cultural rituals as if amaXhosa culture commenced with it.

So, the problem begins there, with amaXhosa legitimising European liquor as part of African culture.

Instead of confronting powerless Africans who are trying to make a living, even if in a self-destructive way, Chief Mandela should have the courage to confront the amaXhosa royalty to take a stand against reducing amaXhosa sacred ritual ceremonies into drinking parties that reduce our young people to hopeless and helpless drunkards.

One imagines that if Chief Mandela does this, he will find many among amaXhosa chiefs who will remind him of King Ngqika.

But that is no cause for despair – revolutionary change does not take place overnight.

It is a protracted process that requires not only commitment, courage and enthusiasm, but also lots of patience.

This struggle may not be won in Chief Mandela’s lifetime, but let him be remembered as having lived up to the legacy of his grandfather, Nelson Mandela, of struggling for a noble cause.

Sesanti is associate professor at Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies and the International Journal of African Renaissance Studies’ deputy editor


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