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As alcohol sparks apartheid-style repression once more, we must all be alarmed


Mary de Haas is a violence monitor and analyst.

In one of the liquor-linked lockdown abuses by the security forces, members of the SANDF stand accused of beating to death a man in Alexandra they found drinking in his own yard.

Among the sickening images of security force abuses during the Covid-19 lockdown is that showing the pouring away of a large quantity of home-brewed beer by the police in the Eastern Cape.  This action has deprived people of nutrition, as umqombothi,  like utshwala, is sorghum-based. It also conjures up the similar disturbing images of the apartheid police destroying large quantities of home-brewed liquor in Cato Manor in 1959 – action which fuelled the growing opposition of the oppressed to apartheid policies.  

Beer is a symbol par excellence of colonial and apartheid repression. Perhaps the police minister does not know that for over a century, successive repressive governments implemented laws to try and stop illegal brewing, and block access to all but state-sponsored beer halls, by black Africans, but without success.  Does he not know or care that, while the state loses tax revenues on the legal sale of liquor the only people who benefit from prohibition are organised crime networks, which already operate with devastating success in South Africa?

Sorghum beer, known as utshwala in KZN, was historically drunk in all African societies in which the crop was grown, since it is indigenous to the continent. In South Africa, attempts to limit its consumption started in the colony of Natal since the consumption of utshwala brewed from plentiful crops of amabele (sorghum), was a disincentive to men to sell their labour to the mines and to farmers.  

Women travelled to urban areas to sell home-brewed beer to men working as migrants there. Realising that the sale of beer generated large profits, the Durban municipality introduced the monopolistic beer hall system, the rationale being that the profits generated could be used to cover the cost of “native administration”. However, illegal brewing continued, and – because of constant police raids – led to the development of a variety of quickly fermenting brews with a higher alcoholic content than sorghum beer. By the turn of the 20th century, shebeens were well established, their conviviality being in stark contrast to “drinking in a cage” in beer halls.

With the passing of the Urban Areas Act by the Union government in 1923, the “Durban system” of revenues through beer halls came into its own across the country (and in other British colonies). However, despite ongoing raids, convictions and imprisonment, “illegal” brewing continued unabated, with vast quantities of home-brewed beer and sundry alcoholic concoctions being destroyed in the years following the 1923 legislation.  

It continued because brewing, and the operation of shebeens, were crucial survival strategies in a sea of poverty, especially for women who used the proceeds to support their families – as illustrated in a classic study by anthropologist Ellen Hellman of a “skokiaan yard” (Rooiyard) on the Reef in 1934.

While by no means the only one, the most famous brewing area in Durban was in the shack settlement of Cato Manor, which was difficult for the police to access unless on motorcycles – which gave residents advanced warnings to hide their liquor. Resistance by residents to attempts to move them to the newly established township of KwaMashu, some distance from the city centre, and its impact on liquor-based subsistence, led to beer hall boycotts and political demonstrations that culminated in the murder of nine policemen during a liquor raid in January 1960. 

Resentment over liquor policies were to play a part in the political disturbances which erupted in Sharpeville and other areas two months later.  This trend continued as the repressive grip of apartheid tightened, as with the targeting of government-operated beer halls and bottle stores in Soweto in 1976.

By the early 1970s, the municipal functions of operating beer halls had been taken over by nationwide structures termed Administration Boards, which revenues were used to administer apartheid, primarily through income from the beer halls and bottle stores they operated. “Administration”, being a euphemism for everything associated with the implementation of the Bantustan policies and the financing of local authorities falling outside of these “national states”, meant that black people financed their own repression.  

The political climate of the 1980s was accompanied by the demise of the Administration Boards, and the privatisation of their liquor assets.  In the Bantustans the acquisition of bottle stores was facilitated through being part of the governance. As the formalisation of taverns approached, the persecution of shebeen operators continued.  

In 1990 Ms X was dragged naked from her bath as the local Esikhaleni police seized large quantities of liquor she sold while the local KwaZulu police would drink in another local joint while terrorising the operator and patrons by firing their guns.

Quite apart from the commercial associations of beer, that brewed from sorghum (and it may include maize) remains central to religious observances relating to ancestral veneration and rituals in families and homesteads.   

The rights to engage in such practices are entrenched in Section 31 of the Constitution yet, at the behest of their minister, the police are invading the private spaces of homesteads and destroying a nutritious beverage and food.  

Now members of the SANDF stand accused of beating to death a man in Alexandra they found drinking in his own yard – but these soldiers are deployed to support the police, and appear to be acting on the instructions of their minister when targeting people with liquor.  

In refusing to provide protection for Thabiso Zulu, the minister of police has already shown that he does not take his constitutional responsibilities to prevent crime (Section 205,3) seriously. The minister is appointed by the president, the commander-in-chief of those enforcing lockdown.  

The question is, what is the president doing about a police minister who is allowing his personal obsession with alcohol to lead to unconstitutional and criminal actions by security force members – and to facilitate the expansion of the country’s flourishing organised crime networks? DM

 Writer’s note: this draws primarily on my own research and reports which also drew on a wide variety of historical research on the topic (following) on beer, liquor and shebeens in the 1980s and early 1990s (eg, personal research in Esikhaleni from which the two examples drawn, where I sat in some of the joints).

The Role of Beer in Black Society: Continuity and Change, 1986  report prepared for Tetrapak Liquid Packaging S A Ltd (mimeo).

The Significance of Beer Production and Consumption in Contemporary Black urban and rural societies, 1989 HSRC Pretoria.


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