Defend Truth


The traditional African beer ‘purity law’ will help restore respect for umqombothi in South Africa


Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and former Executive Dean: Faculty of Law, University of Johannesburg. Lebogang Seale is the Senior Manager: Strategic Communications, University of Johannesburg. Both write in their personal capacities.

The recent signing of the Liquor Products Amendment Act 8 of 2021 by President Cyril Ramaphosa into law deserves the highest (traditional) honour there is. The president has restored the dignity of this essential brew which is venerated by many people in southern Africa. Umqombothi is now in the statute books for the right reasons.

The South African traditional beer, popularly known as umqombothi in isiZulu, is a special beverage to many people in the country. This is the case for a variety of reasons. First, it is accessible and affordable to an average person. The ingredients used to brew this beer, such as water, sorghum malt and mealie meal, are cheap and readily available. It does not require refrigeration as it can be enjoyed at room temperature.

Second, it is considered a healthy drink. A 2020 study by University of Johannesburg researchers found the traditional beverage to be “nutritionally packed with minerals, amino acids, B-group vitamins and much-needed calories”.

Third, African traditional ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and rituals are generally incomplete without the scattering of snuff and pouring of libations (i.e., homemade sorghum beer) on the ground while invoking their ancestral spirits. It is the beverage of choice for communicating with the ancestors (badimo/amadlozi).

One would expect any liquid refreshment that is central to connecting with the ancestors to be revered. Sadly, our not-so-good colonial and apartheid history points to the contrary. The traditional African beer is featured in the statute books for the wrong reasons. Many people ended in jail for illegally brewing and/or selling as well as consuming the beverage. In addition, it was called names that should not be repeated in this article.

In his novel, Down Second Avenue, Es’kia Mphahlele, the late journalist, academic and doyen of South African literature, writes about his aunt Dora and other women’s struggles to eke out a living from selling umqombothi in Marabastad, Pretoria, because the apartheid authorities regarded it as an illegal practice. The women endured constant raids and beatings or even arrests, and the White policemen hurled profanities such as “stinking k****r”, and “jou donder” to further humiliate them. The women were unfazed and remained courageous as they continued to send their “children to school with money from beer selling” umqombothi.

Like the stoic and resourceful women portrayed by Mphahlele, Charles van Onselen, in his epic book, The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African sharecropper 1894-1985, gives an account of “… the more robust social interactions that surrounded village women who brewed and sold” umqombothi. He writes: “Indeed, if anything, the commercial brewers were an occupational hazard for since, to avoid police detention, they sometimes buried four-gallon tins of beer in the veld, returning to collect the supplies later, under the pretext of being dutiful wives who were out to collect fuel.”  

Despite being reviled by some, many people did not hesitate to celebrate umqombothi and fortify it with the respect it so richly deserved. Who can forget the famous song by Yvonne Chaka Chaka Umqombothi in which she aptly calls the drink a magic beer?

This is good and well. However, the recent signing of the Liquor Products Amendment Act 8 of 2021 by President Cyril Ramaphosa into law deserves the highest (traditional) honour there is. With the stroke of a pen, the president, in many ways, restored the dignity that was stripped off this essential brew which is venerated by many people in southern Africa. Umqombothi is now in the statute books for the right reasons.

The Liquor Products Amendment Act calls the beer “traditional African beer” and not the legally sanctioned derogatory name(s) of yesteryear. In addition, it states that traditional African beer “shall be produced by the alcoholic fermentation of malted grain of sorghum, maize, finger millet or pearl millet, or unmalted grain or meal of sorghum, maize, finger millet or pearl millet; be in a state of alcoholic fermentation or not have its alcoholic fermentation arrested; contain at least four per cent solids derived from the grain or meal…; and not contain or be flavoured with hops or any product derived from hops”.

This is key for ensuring that the ingredients for brewing umqombothi remain unaltered and, by so doing, the purity of umqombothi is preserved. Furthermore, anything that does not comply with the legally prescribed requirements is and should not be called traditional African beer. It is hoped that those who misrepresent strange concoctions as umqombothi or spike the drink with foreign substances, including battery acid and methylated spirits, will refrain from doing so.

The legal stipulations regarding the ingredients of traditional African beer will certainly please the conservationists and provoke the ire of evolutionists. The point is the conservationists will, on the one hand, surely appreciate the preservation of the ingredients of the beer as brewed by our ancestors for current and future generations. The evolutionist will, on the other hand, prefer a situation where beer is given a fair chance to evolve with time and tastes.

By enacting what appears to be a traditional African beer purity law, is the legislature not (un)wittingly stifling the development of the beer? The answer to the question is a big “no”. An answer in the positive would suggest that traditional African beer cannot develop if one is to limit its brewing to the prescribed ingredients.

The point is, if the German experience is anything to go by, the only restriction to the brewer’s mind is the imagination and not the ingredients. To elaborate on this point, Germany has a centuries-old beer purity law called the Reinheitsgebot. This confines the ingredients used in beer production in that country to water, barley, and hops. Yet, this did not limit the brewers from producing thousands of different types of beers.

Of course, some believe that the Reinheitsgebot has slowed down the adoption of beer trends prevalent in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, the beer purity law remains an important marketing tool for German beer in that country and abroad. It has been adopted by several brewers outside of Germany, including Namibia Breweries.

In the final analysis, discerning consumers of alcoholic drinks are generally those who can afford to be choosy. However, for the desperate and thirsty, it is a matter of beggars not having the luxury of being finicky. Getting merry, cheaply and safely is a good proposition.

Second, traditional African beer brewing is a skill to be preserved and, as a result, the legislation of the ingredients is a good start.

Third, one can never thank the legislature enough for restoring the respect and dignity that the traditional African beer so richly deserves.

Finally, this may be a good foundation for exporting high quality traditional African traditional beer to the world. If South Africa’s famous Marula cream liqueur can do it, why can’t umqombothi?

It is unclear why Parliament took so long to address one of the greatest injustices of the past. However, as they say, it is better late than never. DM

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