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History in a bottle

You can find history anywhere — even in a bottle!

The history of liquor in South Africa is sometimes sweet, sometimes dry, but mostly very bitter.

A tot of that history will give you a strong kick. It tastes like it was brewed in the barrel of apartheid!

Ravan Press has just brought out a new book about the history of liquor in South Africa. It is called BREWERS, BEERHALLS AND BOYCOTTS. It is written by Paul la Hausse, from the History Workshop at Wits University.

The first chapter of this little book is called, “VOICES FROM THE PAST”. It tells how people have struggled, argued and fought over alcohol through the years.

At times the whites have wanted black people to drink. At other times white governments have made alcohol illegal for blacks. In other words, the sale and drinking of liquor has been used as weapon to control people.


In the old days, most African people drank beer. Their beer was rich and strong. There is an old Zulu saying: ‘utshwala buqinisa umzimba’, which means ‘beer strengthens the body’. But not everyone liked to see people enjoying a cool beer.

The white settlers who came to South Africa wanted people to work on their farms. They thought that people would rather drink beer than work for them. So they asked the government to ban alcohol for blacks.

Other white farmers had other ideas. They paid people to work for them with alcohol. This type of payment was called the ‘tot’ or ‘dop’ system. The farmers liked this way of payment.

They didn’t have to pay their workers much money. And the drink made some workers forget about the bad working conditions and low wages.

The mine bosses used alcohol in the same way. At first the bosses were only too happy when the workers drank. If workers spent their money on drink, they would stay and work on the mines for a longer time. They would be too poor to go home.

But then the bosses thought their workers drank too much. And workers who were drunk could not make money for them. In 1897, the bosses asked the government to ban liquor for Africans on the Witwatersrand.


Paul La Hausse’s book has many interesting little stories about alcohol. One of these stories tells how white gangs sold illegal drinks to workers. These gangs were often very big and well organised. The gang bosses were called ‘Liquor Kings’.

The liquor gangs often sold drink from places called ‘forts’. These were buildings next to licensed liquor shops. They were joined to the legal shop by tunnels. They were dark inside. The buyer got his drink through a hole in the wall. In this way the seller could not be seen.

In Durban, the whites thought of another way to control African people’s drinking. This was the beerhall. The workers called the beerhalls ‘cages’. People could only get a small amount of beer at these places. There were fences and gates to control the drinkers.

The beerhalls put money in the white town councils’ pockets. This money was used to build prison-like compounds. Black workers had to live in these ugly places. The money was also used to pay police salaries.


But the beerhalls also helped put a fire in the people’s hearts. This was the fire of resistance. It was this fire which led to people forming a new organisation — the ICU.

The ICU was the Industrial and Commercial Worker’s Union. It was started by a man named Clements Kadalie in 1919. One of its largest branches was in Durban. Many workers rushed to join the ICU, with its famous red flag and its battle cry, “I See You, White Man”.

One of the ICU’s most important struggles was against the beerhalls. In 1929 the dock workers decided to start a boycott of the beerhalls. The boycott spread, and the angry workers attacked the beerhalls. The police and their white friends fought back. As the book says, “The old Zulu war cry ‘Usuthu’ echoed through Durban’s streets… Six African workers and two whites were killed.”


The women of the ICU felt it was their right to brew beer. It was their tradition. And they could get a little money from it. Also they suffered when their men spent all their wages on the town council’s beer.

So the ICU women went to war. They went to the beerhalls. And they beat the men inside with sticks. The most famous of these women were Ma- Dhlamini and Bertha Mkize. Many men feared and respected these fierce women.

The Durban branch of the South African Communist Party (SACP) also took up the struggle. The Party had a pass burning campaign. And they said, “Smash the barrels in the beerhalls!”

But on the 16th of December 1930, the police attacked a worker’s mass meeting. The leader of the SACP in Durban, Johannes Nkosi, was killed by black policemen.

The struggles against beerhalls in Durban did not end in the 30’s. The book also tells the story of Mkhumbane, the “squatter” area outside Durban. Here in the 1950’s, the women were again fighting the beerhalls. Some of these women were big — and brave. They even attacked the police!


In the 1920’s and 3O’s,many thousands of people came to live in the cities. Life was hard for the poor people living in the city slumyards. Many women made a living by brewing beer.

The women in the slums helped each other. Some shebeens were organised like stokvels. Every week one of the women had a turn to have a big party. Musicians would play. And the people would dance… and dance… and dance! A party could start on a Friday night and end on Sunday evening. This was the time of Marabi — and life would never be the same again.

In the slum shebeens South African jazz was born. Early jazz giants like Solomon ‘Zuluboy’ Cele, Ernest Moekumi and Jacob Moeketsi started their careers as Marabi musicians.


The government has tried many ways of stopping black people from coming to the cities. One way of doing this was to stop people — especially women — from earning money by brewing liquor. For many years the police ‘made war’ on the women brewers.

But the women were not easily beaten. They had all kinds of tricks — like burying their beer in barrels, under the ground. Their kids kept watch for the police. The police would raid the townships in their vans. People called these vans the ‘Hurry Hurry’. When a Hurry Hurry came into a street, the children would jump up. “Araraayi!” they shouted. And the shebeen ‘mamas’ would quickly hide their customer’s drinks.

Paul La Hausse’s book tells many other stories. One of these is the story of how the ANC supported the struggle against beerhalls. When Dr Xuma became president of the ANC in 1940, he spoke out against the beerhalls. He said the government should not make money out of beerhalls — and that it was making people into criminals with its apartheid drinking laws.


The book ends with the story of 1976. That year when the fires of anger were burning the country

— and the beerhalls too. The youth hated Bantu education. But they also hated the way liquor had taken their people’s lives and money — money that was used to pay for apartheid. Beerhalls and liquor shops were burned to the ground.

The youth were carrying on the struggles of their people — like the beer protesters in Durban in 1929, and the Marabi women in the 30’s. But the youth of 76 had their own reason for burning these places. They said liquor makes the people weak. And our nation needs to be strong if we ever want to taste freedom!

You can order the book BREWERS, BEERHALLS AND BOYCOTTS by sending R6 to Ravan Press. This price includes GST and postage. The address is: Ravan Press PO Box 31134 Braamfontein 2017

NEW WORDS Illegal — against the law licensed — a place that has a license or permit resistance — to fight back echoed — a sound that is heard again and again


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