Twisted tale of alcohol and apartheid

If SA has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, perhaps the past can help explain why. Charl Blignaut and Siyabonga Sithole get a history lesson

There was a certain kind of beer advert that began to appear on South African TV in the euphoric afterglow of democracy in the 1990s.

Proud, muscled labourers would save the day before downing a liberating brew.

A pack of multiracial buddies, “members of the Charles Glass society”, would bond with a drink in a pub as they celebrated the return of an old friend.

In one, a black footballer’s team-mates raise the money to buy him a ticket to London. He victoriously lifts his bottle of beer to toast a mythical white man.

For beer producers, the past was another country.

A hundred years earlier, in that other country, the prohibition act of 1897 made it illegal for black people to drink alcohol.

Migrant workers had flocked to Joburg and mine bosses feared liquor was undermining productivity.

Seventy-five years earlier, the bosses decided to let the men drink – but only on their terms. They controlled the traditional beer trade by brewing it themselves and selling it in hostels.

The apartheid state saw the sense in this and later began to roll out township beer halls. Home brewing – traditionally done by women – was not tolerated and alcohol became a driving force for raids.

Fifty years earlier, the soundtrack to the glowing commercials would’ve been Miriam Makeba singing “Jonga jonga jonga”, a warning cry from a child keeping watch for police arriving.

Late in the heady 1990s, South African Breweries (SAB) began to punt beer to women. In the TV ads they were sporty yet feminine and only drank “lite” brands.

In that other country, women were far from being accessories watching the cricket. While men consumed the beer, it was women who took to the streets to fight the state for their rights.

“There is an important tension right there,” says historian Noor Nieftagodien. “Women are crucial in the issues I’m going to raise in this waffle …”

Seated in front of a vast bookshelf in his otherwise-sparse office at the Wits History Department, he would like to go back earlier than just a century ago.

The dop system

“The bergie has 250 years of history,” says Nieftagodien.

“A vagabond, especially one living on the slopes of Table Mountain in the Western Cape province,” says the internet when you ask it what a bergie is.

The culture of drinking in coloured communities and the existence of the bergie could well be exacerbated “because people’s lives were controlled in a way which almost bizarrely supported inebriation,” says Nieftagodien. He is referring to the dop (tot) system that thrived on farms after slavery at the Cape.

“Farmers would pay their workers in the form of wine.”

In the archives is an iconic photo of a farmer’s daughter, decked in riding pants, feeding a child labourer a scoop of wine.

“The dop system continued on a massive scale right up until fairly recently. It was first challenged fundamentally in the 1950s with the rise of unions, but by then endemic alcoholism had set in. You got kids being born alcoholic … This system and culture of inebriation reproduces itself.”


“Like the dop system, drink on the mines was used as a form of reward. Liquor made workers more prepared to accept their miserable living conditions on the Rand,” writes Paul la Hausse in Brewers, Beerhalls and Boycotts.

The life of a migrant worker centred on work, sleep and leisure, says Nieftagodien.

“First you have the compound system, workers living all over. They congregate and they brew their own beer. This is their source of income. When the closed compound system is established, beer brewing becomes the sole preserve of the mining companies.”

“For many workers, drinking was the only comfort they had,” writes La Hausse. “But this dependence on alcohol led to addiction. And addiction often forced workers to lengthen their contracts on the mines.”

Mine workers coined a new name for drunkards – isidakwa. “It was said that you could tell the isidakwa by looking at the sacks in which workers kept their belongings. The drunkard’s sack was nearly empty because of his poverty. It was also very worn because he had been working on the mines for a long time.”

Of course, there were white-owned liquor shops selling spirits in turn-of-the-century Joburg. Natives were banned from drinking the ‘white man’s liquor’ but that didn’t stop the illegal trade in dangerous and unregulated spirits to mineworkers.

Mostly, though, the workers drank the traditional beer sold in the hostels.

Using tokens, some mines even encouraged them to borrow money for it.

Drinking cages

Every weekend, hundreds of women brought “gourds, calabashes and tins of beer into Durban by train”, writes La Hausse, but most of the city’s beer trade was controlled by African men.

The Natal Advertiser reported with alarm on black labourers being self-employed through brewing. Whites, after all, were often short of labour.

While the mines turned a blind eye to drinking and prostitution, white society was increasingly fearful of drunk natives, potential riots and reports of interracial sex. So town councils clamped down.

Soon after municipalities introduced beer halls, first in Natal in 1909, workers referred to the experience as “drinking in a cage”.

The bleak, brick structures sold tickets to drinkers, who moved through turnstiles to collect their cans of traditional beer.

“In the minds of white officialdom Africans are innately rural, therefore all that they are allowed to consume is traditional beer,” says Nieftagodien.

By 1942 there were 45 municipalities with beer halls in South Africa.

The Star, 1942: “Kaffir beer is becoming big business for the municipalities, with profits in some cases of more than 100% and a rapidly increasing turnover.”

“In mine compounds, open spaces were used for cultural activities. Particularly on weekends there would be stick fighting ... Beer halls had no cultural activities. They were predominantly male spaces, popular with migrant labourers. Women felt alienated although there might be one or two women there,” says Nieftagodien.

For the apartheid state, he says, it became easier to monitor black South Africans – both in the drinking cages and in the townships where houses were built with the proceeds.

Black resistance stirred. The first beer hall protests erupted in Natal in the late 1920s. The resistance was spread into villages by women whose men were working in the city and spending money on beer and sending too little home.

ANC President AB Xuma published a fiercely critical pamphlet, Kaffir Beer.

“The beer hall has become the symbol of legal robbery by the whites,” observed Chief Albert Luthuli.

“What the government was saying is that black people should pay for their upkeep … I am summarising the policies of the time here,” says Nieftagodien.

You will pay us to oppress you.

Shebeen queens

What was a rural woman arriving in an urban area to do for money?

“My mother turned our house into a shebeen, worked 10 hours a day pressing home brew called skokiaan and barberton,” wrote Drum journalist Bloke Modisane. “And from the proceeds she educated me to high school level and the two girls to primary school level.”

“Besides being an essential element of diet, beer … was a common means of exchange or payment. It sweetened social intercourse and was vital to religious rituals,” writes Paula du Plooy.

“Brewing, entangled with prostitution, becomes the only source of income. It allows women a degree of independence from men,” says Nieftagodien.

But the state’s monopoly meant that income was being taken away. Women risked imprisonment and fines as liquor raids intensified.

“The state invades the township daily and this contributes to the radicalisation of the black African woman … Women were at the cutting edge of the struggle, hitting men with sticks, burning beer halls and fighting the police. At times women would mobilise in their hundreds, in their thousands, burning down beer halls. Dragging the men out. In fact this is an important part of urban politics that is often neglected,” says the historian.

Shebeens are a contested space – of constant inebriation but also freedom from white rule, which was tightening pass laws, imposing Bantu Education and entrenching the Group Areas Act.

As Marabi rose and Sophiatown culture spread, the shebeen has been romanticised in films, songs, soaps – and beer ads – as a space of escape (and a haven for tsotsis).

Although bootleg booze was available, it was only in 1961 that shebeens were legally allowed to sell “white men’s liquor”.

“Wine and spirits were now available through government-owned bottlestores,” writes La Hausse. The state hoped the new laws would save money on raids and force the shebeens out of existence. It didn’t work, even after the beer halls were renamed “beer gardens”.

The new laws opened a huge market to SAB, established in 1895, which would develop a delivery network that spider-webbed the townships.

“Many youths began to feel that adults had surrendered the struggle for freedom and turned to the shiny new bottle which the government had offered them.”


The struggle of the women and their children would bring the beer protests to a head during the Soweto uprisings of June 16 1976. Youth leaders said they could not tolerate seeing their “fathers’ pay pockets being emptied on drink”.

“Students realise liquor is keeping black men in a state of inebriation and there is a sense among the youth activists that the beer halls are an important part of the apartheid strategy. And they burn them down,” says Nieftagodien.

“Two things are attacked, the administration board offices in all parts of Soweto, and beer halls and liquor stores. The shebeens are not attacked in the early parts. But what students do later in 1976 is to call on shebeens to close.”

With the demise of the beer halls the state “has to find other sources of income … which means taxes. And this impacts on the uprisings of 1983. The increase in rent resulted in a revolt.”

The historian’s story does not end with the tinge of a new dawn.

“We are a sexual and drinking nation. I am not surprised at all. I do not know if there is a singular explanation for this. The elements of the answer can be found in what we have been talking about … I agre,e on the one hand, very strongly that there was a state and capital imperative behind alcohol legislation, profoundly so.

“But one has to be very careful not to ascribe all the problems of alcohol to state capital and control. People made choices. Not every black man spent his wages on alcohol. Or all his time in the beer hall, shebeen or tavern.”

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