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African reaction to the beer halls
05 Nov 2009
Paula du Plooy

In 1960, fifty-one years after beer halls were established in Pietermaritzburg in 1909, black women armed with sticks marched into them and forced the male customers to leave. The women then picketed the beer halls so effectively that for days the men were too scared to return. Beer halls have been both resented and frequented by the urban Africans. They perceive them as instruments of their poverty and symbols of government oppression, yet recognize that they meet certain social and recreational needs.

Long before the arrival of the whites, the brewing and drinking of beer had been an integral part of African social life in Natal. A wide variety of beers had been produced, utshwala being the generic name given to them. This thick reddish-grey brew was usually made from sorghum, which is laid between damp mats until it begins to sprout. The grain is then dried, ground to a fine powder, fermented and boiled. The result is, in the words of the South African Native Races Committee, 'a beverage hardly as alcoholic as the lightest European-beer and extremely wholesome'. Besides being an essential element of diet, beer also played a significant role in the community life of blacks. Beer was a common means of exchange or payment for services rendered. It was used to sweeten social intercourse and was, moreover, vital to religious rituals of the community.

After colonization, Africans began increasingly to move from the rural areas to cities like Pietermaritzburg, where traditional ties were broken under European influence. Africans began to consume European spirituous liquor and to sell their traditional beer, a thing they had never done before. They also began to add spirits to their beer, making it much more potent. The Natal Government, in response to pressure from whites, prohibited the sale of European liquor to all Africans while at the same time gradually increasing restrictions on African production and sale of utshwala in the cities. After 1908 Africans in urban areas were no longer allowed to brew their beer domestically. Instead, city councils were permitted either to monopolize the manufacture or sale of beer or to provide licences to individuals to brew and sell it. Pietermaritzburg, along with Durban, decided on the former system.

The Pietermaritzburg City Council adopted the monopoly system ostensibly to control African consumption of alcohol and to curb the drunkenness and crime apparently so prevalent in the borough at that time. While Council was determined to protect its white citizens from the ravages of African drunkenness, it was al so influenced by the knowledge that a great deal of profit could be made out of the monopoly system, and that this profit could be used to finance the increasing costs of African administration in the borough. There was also an element of paternalism in the Council's decision, for by establishing municipal controlled beer halls, African beerdrinkers were to be protected from unscrupulous illicit liquor dealers and to be provided with 'good and wholesome' beer in 'clean and hygienic' conditions. On 14 February 1909 a brewery and four beer halls were opened in the City. The beer halls were established in areas where large numbers of Africans lived or worked, such as outside the Togt (day labourers) Barracks and near the Power Station. Soon afterwards a fifth beer hall was opened in Commercial Road for domestic servants and other Africans who lived in town.

The establishment of beer halls was resented by the African community, which initially indicated this by boycotting them. Amongst their reasons were the exclusion of women, the inferior quality of beer on sale and the prohibition on the brewing of beer at home for domestic consumption. Yet according to the Mayor's Report of 1909, the boycott did not last long and beer halls soon became 'fairly popular'.

Beer halls were forbidding , cold, concrete establishments, but the people who attended them made them warm. Initially Pietermaritzburg beer halls were just what their name implies - halls where beer was sold. Within a year, however, the beer halls on Commercial Road and outside the Togt Barracks had eating rooms attached to them. African entrepreneurs could hire a table and sell food to all who cared to eat there. This was the first step in the evolution of beer halls into social, recreational and entrepreneurial centres for Africans in the borough.

This process took place over several decades, and culminated in 1934 in the building of a model beer hall in Berg Street. Ever since the establishment of beer halls, African traders have used the area outside to sell their wares. Inside the halls, the City Council provided stalls, at a price, to would-be entrepreneurs. This opportunity to do business legally attracted many Africans to the halls and still does today. Among goods traditionally sold are medicines, snuff, groceries and trinkets.

Besides selling their wares, Africans also used the beer halls for wedding receptions, dances and meetings. These were all monitored by the white supervisor of the beer halls who would not allow any African political activists to use the halls as meeting places.

In their leisure time, which was limited, African labourers nevertheless found the opportunity to drink copious amounts of beer, as is borne out by the large profits made from its sale. It was in the 1950s though, when a new brewery was established and the quality of beer improved, that beer sales really soared. In 1955 beer worth £61 758 was sold. After the prohibition of African consumption of European liquor was lifted in 1961, the Council decided that whites could also drink African beer, but not in the beer halls. The beer was sold in containers in liquor stores. Africans quickly began buying this beer in huge quantities.

While a great many Africans spent as much time as they could in the beer halls, the beer halls were never totally accepted by the community. Different sectors of the African community had different reasons for disapproving of them. The educated African elite felt uncomfortable in the beer halls which were crowded, noisy and often dangerous as other customers became drunk and unruly. There was no place for the elite to conduct dignified conferences or enjoy quiet conversations. It appears that the Pietermaritzburg City Council was aware that the beer hall system failed to meet the needs of the African elite, and tried to rectify the situation by providing facilities such as rest rooms and special accommodation for the sole use of educated Africans. But the innovation failed to achieve its purpose.

The reluctance of 'respectable' Africans to enter the beer halls was not only based on class prejudices. Many regarded the whole practice of drinking utshwala with abhorrence, and recommended that the consumption of all forms of intoxicating liquor should be prohibited. It was claimed that beer halls were responsible for 'ruining our people' and lowering moral and social standards. Council's use of the beer hall profits served to increase criticism by educated Africans. They were aware that the sale of utshwala enabled the Council to administer Africans without using much money from the general revenue account. Conscious that they were thus paying for their own administration, Africans deplored the lack of consultation between the authorities and themselves. As Mr Selby Msimang told the 1941-2 Native Affairs Commission, it was unfair that 'Europeans know how much they get and how it is used but natives don't'. The Council's protestations that beer hall profits were used to provide essential services for the African community did not diminish criticism.

The wives and daughters of African labourers also disapproved of the beer halls, although their reasons for doing so differed from those of the educated African elite. Economic conditions in the first decades of the twentieth century forced a great many women into the urban areas where they suffered under the triple discrimination of race, class and sex . Work was hard to come by and wages usually only a third of what men received. Women, who had to manage the home as well, struggled to make ends meet. What made the struggle particularly heartbreaking was that their husbands and sons often squandered what little money they had in the beer halls. The Council's prohibition of the presence of women in the beer halls increased female animosity. Unlike their menfolk, they had no time or opportunity for relaxation. African women made public their discontent with this unjust situation in 1929 and again in 1960, when they forced men to boycott the beer halls, demanding that these be closed. They believed that if municipal beer halls were shut down, the men would spend more time at home and that there would be more money for food.

While the boycotts and violence of 1929 and 1960 received a great deal of publicity, they were not the only form in which women protested against the beer hall system. Shebeens were the female symbol of defiance in a male-dominated society . The origins of shebeens lie in the traditional gathering of men at the homestead to drink utshwala brewed by women. This tradition changed in the urban environment. Prior to 1908 great confusion existed regarding the liquor laws and African labourers were unsure of how to obtain beer legally. To lessen their men's thirst, women brewed utshwala in the homestead and transported it into town by railway. Utshwala was then sold by the male members of the family.

When women were forced into the cities they took over the selling of utshwala. Shackled by unemployment, women brewed utshwala in their backyards for sale to male customers in an effort to earn enough money to live. The name given to women who ran such establishments was, and still is, 'shebeen queens'. It was often stated that inadequate wages was the reason for the proliferation of shebeen queens, but this cannot be totally accepted. The better quality beer brewed by these women and the fact that it was far more potent than Council beer also contributed to the enormous popularity of shebeens. Also contributing to their popularity was the fact that they offered African labourers the opportunity to relax away from the constant vigilance of European supervisors and away from the stabbings, beatings and pick-pockets of the beer halls.

Nevertheless, the fact that beer halls up to 1939 were solely the retreat of men, and that the culture that developed there was dominated by masculine activity, possibly accounts for their abiding popularity amongst African labourers. A more feasible explanation concerns the siting of the beer halls. The Council established them not only where large numbers of African labourers were gathered, but also where they had to pass as they travelled to and from work. After an arduous day's work the temptation to step into a beer hall and have a drink proved hard to resist. The shortage of alternative recreational facilities in the City was another contributing factor.

While the Council maintained that the beer hall system was essentially voluntary it can be regarded as coercive. It intruded directly into the lives of urban Africans, if only because it monopolized the sale of their traditional beverage and provided a few other forms of amusement. Even so Africans were quickly able to modify and adapt the beer halls to fit into their lifestyles.

SOURCE: Pietermaritzburg 1838–1988: a new portrait of an African city, edited by John Laband and Robert Haswell (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press and Shuter & Shooter, 1988), pp. 142–3.

Caption: Women selling food in a Pietermaritzburg beer hall.

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