Beer, Sociability, and Masculinity in South Africa

Beer, Sociability, and Masculinity in South Africa

by Anne Kelk Mager


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Beer connects commercial, social, and political history in this sobering look at the culture of drinking in South Africa. Beginning where stories of colonial liquor control and exploitation leave off, Anne Kelk Mager looks at the current commerce of beer, its valorizing of male sociability and sports, and the corporate culture of South African Breweries [SAB], the world’s most successful brewing company. Mager shows how the industry, dominated by a single brewer, was compelled to comply with legislation that divided customers along racial lines, but also promoted images of multi-racial social drinking in the final years of apartheid. Since the transition to majority rule, SAB has rapidly expanded into new markets—including the United States with the purchase of Miller Brewing Company. This lively book affords a unique view into global manufacturing, monopolies, politics and public culture, race relations, and cold beer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253221803
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/02/2010
Series: African Systems of Thought
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Anne Kelk Mager is Associate Professor of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. She is author of Gender and the Making of a South African Bantustan: A Social History of the Ciskei, 1945–1959.

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Beer, Sociability, and Masculinity in South Africa

By Anne Kelk Mager

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Anne Mager
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-22180-3


Illicit Drinking, Prohibition, and Sociability in Apartheid's Townships

While urban black drinking cultures had been associated with shebeens, prohibition, and illicit liquor at least since the 1920s, three developments in the mid-1950s set in motion a new trend. First, the thriving illicit liquor trade was overcoming the resources of the police. Illicit drinking spots, or shebeens, were increasing in popularity. Shebeens thrived both because of and despite the 1928 prohibition on the sale of "European liquor" to Africans. Second, the National Party government remained at a loss as to how to handle the illicit trade. Wine farmers and distillers regularly lobbied the government to give them access to the black market, and by the 1950s, the regime was beginning to entertain the possibility of lifting prohibition. Third, changes in the brewing industry added impetus to the move toward liquor liberalization. South African Breweries, a regional brewer, merged with two others in 1955 to form a single national brewer responsible for the production of 95 percent of the country's malt beer. These developments came together in the 1950s to set in motion a series of dramatic changes in African drinking cultures over the next fifty years.

After prohibition was imposed, urban black drinking cultures were bound up with illicit economic and social behaviors. By the 1950s, shebeens had become a ubiquitous feature of city life. "Johannesburg is thick with shebeens" wrote a Drum magazine journalist in 1951. Drum's booze columns (regular features by writers who celebrated drinking) were filled with tales about "highbrow" shebeens that sold exotic imported spirits to professional men and women and their rough counterparts who plied homemade intoxicating brews laced with harmful substances such as tobacco juice or paraffin to the poor. Almost all shebeens were run by enterprising shebeen queens, many of whom employed Coloured runners, or mailers, to purchase "European liquor." Although such premises were often located in the front room of a township house, the overhead was high; it included protection money for corrupt police officials, fines for illicit liquor dealing, inflated fares for taxi owners who transported the contraband alcohol, and payment for "lookouts" and bouncers, who monitored the behavior of patrons and kept an eye out for the police. In 1956, approximately 600 people a day were convicted for the illegal possession of liquor. Drum journalists decried this attack on sociable drinking and repeatedly called for an end to prohibition. But their readers were divided on this issue. A "referendum" conducted by the magazine in 1954 indicated that 183 were in favor of ending prohibition while 153 were opposed.

Famous as spots where musicians confined to racially demarcated townships came together, shebeens were foremost places of drink. Shebeen drinking cultures centered very strongly on the type of liquor consumed, the character of the shebeen queen, and the class of patrons attracted to her establishment. Bloke Modisane, whose mother brewed skokiaan and mbamba (both adulterated alcoholic drinks) in a Sophiatown backyard, observed that those who drank these concoctions had only one purpose — to get drunk: "It was in the manner they drank the skokiaan, in the way they paused almost to feel the drink take effect; I felt that for them getting drunk was a purposeful destruction of the pain of their lives, a drowning of themselves in orgiastic expenditure." Barberton was a quickly brewed concoction of bread, yeast, and sugar. It was known to cause the skin to peel, and it turned long-term users into "raging madmen, especially in fights." Skokiaan and barberton drinkers escaped from themselves into the noise that was both part of the effect of the concoctions and "part of themselves." These were not sociable drinkers. In contrast, Can Themba describes the scene at Little Heaven, a highbrow spot in Sophiatown where the room was well furnished, brightly lit, and crowded with men and women sitting in groups of three or four, listening to the hottest jazz, and drinking bottled beer. In the 1950s, beer was not as popular among elite black drinkers as mahog (brandy) and sherry; spirits were more easily transported and more effectively intoxicating than clear beer. Most of this "European liquor" was locally produced.

Each shebeen was characterized by what Jacky Heyns calls its particular "aunty tradition," a mythology constructed around the figure of the she been queen. This lore centered on the masculine physicality of the shebeen queen, who was typecast as a tough heavyweight capable of packing a punch that would "make a Kalahari caveman wince." It was promoted by, among others, Drum's journalist and photographer Peter Magubane, who caught a shebeen queen thrashing an unwanted patron as her bemused regulars looked on. The image of the tough, oversized shebeen queen was paired with that of the protective mother who conveyed "unyielding female authority." A third element of this idealization was that all shebeen queens were single mothers who "accommodated the hazards" of the drinks trade in order to provide for their children. Casey Motsisi's "two hundred pound weight" fictitious Aunt Peggy, who wobbled her way across the floor, her "beefy right arm" held out, calling "Money on the table first ... or else," was the archetype maternal figure who was devoted to her patrons. Jacky Heyns's "Aunt Rose," on the other hand, was preoccupied with her own sexuality. Aunt Rose "thumped her way through the drinking lounge" in red, rabbit-eared slippers and liked to have a younger man about her. When a toy boy "could not stand up against the wind anymore," she packed him off. His place was taken by a "brand new Chippendale," and Aunt Rose replaced her slippers with "high-heeled red suede shoes and disappeared into the bedroom for three days." At the same time, shebeen queens claimed respectability for themselves, invested in their children's education, and attained a standard of living that would have been impossible in the formal job market for black women. While Drum journalists celebrated the performance of these independent women, they derided the feminine wiles of shebeen molls — young, attractive women who were often employed by the shebeen queen to lure men into their custom. Molls flirted, wheedled free drinks, and generally played on the vulnerability of men who patronized shebeens. For select shebeen patrons, sociable drinking meant consuming prohibited "European liquor" rather than homebrew and it meant selecting a drinking spot and ordering a drink, activities that required discernment and information. Knowing what to do and how to do it in a respectable shebeen was part of what it meant to live in a city. Drinking was a smart thing to do; it demonstrated worldly familiarity and the power that came with it.

By the end of the 1950s, the escalating scale of the illicit liquor trade was such that the police admitted they could no longer curb its growth. At the bottom end of the trade, home brewing was out of hand. By 1961, more than 13,500 gallons of illicit liquor were brewed daily in informal settlements such as Cato Manor near Durban, which had an estimated population of 80,000 to 120,000. In that same year, there were 30,000 bootleggers in the Western Cape, more than 10,000 shebeens in Soweto, and over 300,000 prosecutions for the illegal possession of liquor in the nation as a whole. At the top end, administration of the permit system introduced by the 1928 Liquor Act had become impossible. In terms of this act, black men in the Cape Province and Natal who were formally educated or owned property were deemed sufficiently "civilized" to be permitted to consume limited quantities of "European liquor." Permits were conditional on two years of good behavior under the Liquor Act, a clean criminal record, and permanent employment. Permit holders were limited to eight bottles of malt beer and four bottles of natural wine or two fortified wines and one bottle of spirits per month. Most of them drank at home. Those without permits drank illegally. Even the police recognized the dangers of prohibition. As one senior official explained, "The Native gets drunk because he swallows whatever quantity of liquor he has obtained as quickly as possible so as not to be caught with it in his possession." It also encouraged a disregard for the law. Prohibition, which was undermined by the inability of the police to cope with enforcing the law, was leading to contempt for the law in general. The police also acknowledged that shebeens provided an atmosphere of congenial companionship. Many blacks preferred them to the crowded, impersonal municipal beer halls that had more in common with prisons than places of conviviality. One high-ranking police official argued that black drinking habits might be "normalised" if prohibition was lifted.

Parliamentary debates on lifting restrictions pertaining to liquor were constructed in relation to whites' racialized perceptions of the character of persons in society. The National Party government recognized that prohibition had placed a crippling burden on the police and judicial system. It had also kept profits on sales of "European liquor" out of white hands. The government appointed a commission of inquiry to look into the effects of prohibition and the possibility of removing the system. In 1960, Avril Malan, chair of the commission, reported that prohibition was a political problem that was causing much "irritation" to blacks. Native resentment was spilling over into a "country-wide rebellious reaction" to the law, the police, and the white man. Recommending that the injustice of prohibition be removed, the commission declared that it was unfair to discriminate against men whose tastes in liquor had changed "irrevocably" as a result of urbanization. "European liquor" was the choice of people in the city, regardless of color, Malan reported. A mere 50,000 of 9 million Africans had permits in 1960. The commissioner argued that the liquor market could be expanded incrementally by extending the number of permits issued.

While Afrikaner members of parliament saw prohibition and the 1928 Liquor Law as the initiative of missionaries and the pro-British temperance movement, they did not adopt Avril Malan's recommendations uncritically. In a confusing mixture of fear and envy, they berated prohibition for nurturing an evil trade in liquor and fostering "terrifying breeding places of trouble and violence." At the same time, prohibition had made it possible for "swanky shebeens" to flourish, giving blacks enormous profits. Moreover, since illicit sales constituted 60 percent of the national liquor trade, it was clear that white producers of alcohol were supplying the shebeeners. The National Party government believed that it was unfair to expect the alcoholic beverage industry to ignore the black market, and the minister of justice proposed lifting prohibition to prevent the illicit trade in "European liquor" from becoming a blot on the new republic.

D. L. Smit, a United Party spokesman on native affairs, had been the main advocate for prohibition in the debates of the early 1960s. Son of a missionary, Smit had been a magistrate and had served as the minister of native affairs in the second administration of Prime Minister J. C. Smuts (1939–1948). His objections to lifting prohibition revealed a colonial fear of what freedom of the market would bring to black societies. People "emerging from primitive barbarism" should not be given uncontrolled access to European liquor, he maintained, because it would loosen the hold of indigenous custom on individual behaviors. The "privilege" of access to European liquor would be misconstrued. "Immature" people would undoubtedly see it as conferring "an improved status." Moreover, Smit argued, black men coupled an irrational preference for strong liquor with an inability to "take" their drink. Echoing one of the perennial fears of white colonialists, he warned that uninhibited drunkenness and the self-perceptions it induced would lead black men to commit acts of sexual violence against both black and white women. Others argued that South Africa's "success with colonialism" would be jeopardized if drink were supplied to "our 360 000 mineworkers away from the controlling influence of tribe, wife and family." This discourse echoed the belief of colonialists that rampant "expression of individual desire, of licence and passion" would surely follow the lifting of controls on the market. The prohibitionist logic was that if children were forbidden to drink intoxicating beverages in all civilized societies, then "immature" black people should be treated similarly. This logic was shared by members of the temperance movement and religious organizations who feared the deleterious effects of liquor on "under-developed peoples." For these groups, paternalism underpinned the principle of white trusteeship in colonial society; to ignore it was to go against western civilization.

The all-white Parliament voted to end prohibition in 1960, not gradually, as the Malan Commission had proposed, but "in full." Coloureds would be given the same privileges as whites, while blacks would be restricted to purchasing "European liquor" (that is, all alcoholic beverages not indigenous to Africa) from outlets run by municipalities in the black townships. While the shebeen-patronizing journalists of Drum magazine celebrated, many people of color did not. As four African men stood outside Parliament with placards protesting, "Now shebeens will thrive" and "The wine people will now become rich and our children will become hungry," Dr. Richard van der Ross, prominent educator and leader in Cape Town's Coloured community, said, "The liquor concessions are being played up as equality with the Europeans. This is rubbish." Prominent black leaders, including Chief Albert Luthuli of the African National Congress (ANC) and Dr. R. T. Bokwe, medical officer of health for Middledrift in the Eastern Cape, condemned the new dispensation, pointing out that rapid social change necessitated tight control over liquor. Other black leaders, including clergymen, supported a minority liberal position that upheld the freedom of the market and the economic rationality of blacks over missionary paternalism and white interests. This view was also adopted by the South African Institute of Race Relations, a nongovernmental organization, and a few black businessmen who welcomed the lifting of discriminatory legislation. The shebeeners themselves, who were neither legal nor organized, were not drawn into this public discourse. Without a voice, they could do little other than adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

Market-driven interests also reflected Afrikaner thinking on prohibition. The act of becoming a republic in 1961 had led to South Africa losing its preferential trade status in the Commonwealth, posing a major threat to exporters of wine and spirits. Anxious wine farmers and liquor producers wanted to expand the market for liquor. Also, the apartheid regime saw an opportunity to gain revenues from taxes on wider sales of liquor to blacks. Liberalizing black access to alcohol would draw attention away from apartheid's repressive controls. Prohibition was lifted in 1961 soon after a state of emergency was imposed following police shooting of protesters against the pass system in Sharpeville in March of that year. The relaxation of prohibition laws also came in the wake of the banning of African nationalist organizations. The state promoted the new system as an act of generosity and hoped that it might distract critics from the slew of apartheid laws passed in the 1950s and the silencing of African political voices. "Freedom" of access to alcohol complemented political repression; the closure of political space was replaced by the opening of drinking spaces.


Excerpted from Beer, Sociability, and Masculinity in South Africa by Anne Kelk Mager. Copyright © 2010 Anne Mager. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 Illicit Drinking, Prohibition, and Sociability in Apartheid's Townships 12

2 "If You Want to Run with the Big Dogs": Beer Wars, Competition, and Monopoly 28

3 Beer Advertising: Making Markets and Imagining Sociability in a Divided Society 47

4 "Tomorrow Will Also Be a Hard Day": Antisocial Drinking Cultures and Alcoholic Excess 66

5 Remaking the Old Order: Beer, Power, and Politics 80

6 Heritage and Beer Tourism: Reimagining Beer after Apartheid 106

7 Global Competition, World Class Manufacturing, and National Economic Restructuring 123

Epilogue: Global and Local 146

Appendix 151

Notes 153

Bibliography 207

Index 225

What People are Saying About This

Emory University - Ivan Karp

A compelling story of how one of the most successful corporations in South Africa managed to thrive during the apartheid period. . . . At the same time, this is a study of the history of beer drinking, corporate culture in South Africa, the public sphere under apartheid and after, and gender and race relations.

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