Shebeen queens nurture communities

Shebeen queens, you may love or hate them, but they are an integral part of black entrepreneurial history in South Africa.

Like minibus taxi operators, shebeen queens (and kings) emerged from a difficult and complex socioeconomic environment.

Black women had to rely on work in the informal sector to close the gap between wages and the cost of subsistence and, as a result, many became beer brewers or ran shebeens.

These (mainly unregistered) liquor outlets survived deliberate actions by the apartheid government to shut them down as a black person by law was not allowed to brew or drink beer, not to mention spirits.

Shebeen owners operate largely from their own homes, providing a socialising or entertaining environment for communities that have little of either.

In the main, they sell alcohol as the only source of income for their families.

African jazz pioneers, writers and playwrights have all found the stories of shebeen queens and their businesses fascinating.

Even today, Mam’Ruby, a shebeen queen character in the popular soapie Generations, often gets social media buzzing with updates on her actions.

The 1950s Drum magazine generation of writers wrote extensively about the shebeen business and the role that mainly women owners of these businesses played.

One of these writers, Bloke Modisane, himself a son of a shebeen queen, had this to say in his autobiography, Blame Me on History: “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 while doing it.”

Yes, there are many hazards associated with this business, and the many negative social effects on the neighbourhoods in which they operate have been recorded.

The point, now, is how do we deal with all the problems and support these established outlets?

With high levels of unemployment, we also have to be conscious of the economic consequences of removing businesses that are more than 60% owned by black women.

The Foundation for Sustainable Livelihoods estimates that there are 25 000 informal alcohol outlets in Western Cape alone, with each providing income to an average of three to four people.

The foundation estimates that 210 000 people in the province would be affected if all of its informal outlets were shut.

Since 1994, there has been a great deal of progress in formalising this sector to make shebeens operate within the law. Like other businesspeople, shebeen owners largely accept they have to be registered, pay rates and taxes, and comply with laws, including rules about health and safety.

Loud music and trading 24 hours a day will, of course, have to end. Selling alcohol to underage people – whether they’re there on an uncle’s behalf or not – is illegal and should be treated as such. So is serving more alcohol to people who are already intoxicated.

We have to inculcate among all alcohol-outlet owners the idea that selling one beer to a patron who comes again to buy in future is more profitable and sustainable than encouraging that person to consume a dozen bottles and end up in hospital or even dead.

We cannot push volumes at the expense of the communities we live in.

Alcohol producers and suppliers have a responsibility to support the formalisation of this sector.

It is critical that partnerships with government and regulators are strengthened to ensure alcohol is sold and consumed in a responsible manner and in an appropriate environment.

Among the laws governing the sale of alcohol in the nine provinces, the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Liquor Act stands out for seeking to formalise this sector of our economy in a manner mutually beneficial to the trader and the community.

In addition to community participation in the granting of licences, the act requires the owner of an alcohol outlet to
be involved in a community-development initiative.

The definition of social responsibility is broad, providing space for outlet owners to innovate and participate in solving the social problems affecting their communities – to give back.

For alcohol traders, this is a great opportunity to rid their businesses of the negative reputations they have of adding to social degradation.

It is an opportunity for shebeen owners to grow safe and legitimate leisure and entertainment businesses, while contributing to community upliftment.

» Mngadi is external affairs manager at Brandhouse

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