The unlikely rebirth of the shebeen

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Leroy Dzenga

COVID-19 introduced the world to a new realm of restrictions; even smiles have become hidden and tentative.

Civilisation before the emergence of the pandemic was in pursuit of freedoms.

Freedom to be anything and the gratification of indulgences defined the texture of humanity in the 21st century. Until a disease snapped the world from this hyper-reality.

Drinking alcohol was perhaps the most prominent of self-indulgent activities which characterised that reality.

Pubs and bars were to the free world what churches were to medieval societies: hallowed shrines.

Now authorities across the world have elected to limit gatherings.

So the billion-dollar liquor industry has sneezed. 

On average 188,79 kilolitres are consumed per year in the world. That is about 280 billion 750 millilitre bottles.

This year`s numbers will be nowhere near those statistics due to subdued activity.

But in several Southern African countries, 

the closure of watering holes has facilitated the rebirth of an old business that was slowly dying away.

We are talking of the vibrant, thrilling and illegal shebeen.

In colonial/apartheid Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the shebeen was more than just a drinking place.

Timothy Snarnecchia - author of “The Urban Roots of Democracy and Political Violence in Zimbabwe: Harare and Highfield, 1940–1964” - describes them urban spaces of mobilisation.

Nathaniel Chimhete concurs, saying shebeens were citadels of anti-colonial resistance where black men and women in townships refused to drink unless if it was on their own terms.

In a paper on “African Nationalism, Municipal Beer Outlets and Shebeens in Salisbury, Rhodesia, 1960s–1980”, Chimhete says it was through shebeens that Africans kept themselves politically conscious at a time when gatherings were deemed illegal through legislation like the Law and Order Maintenance Act.

“From the beginning, however, Africans resisted colonial attempts to control the alcohol they drank, its strength, where they drank it and the conditions under which they drank it,” writes Chimhete.

His view on the socio-political significance of such public spheres is not misplaces.

Historians like Nathan Shamhuyarira laid the same claim, arguing that the selection of the beerhall as the focal point of urban nationalism stemmed partly from the nationalist leaders’ realisation that many urban dwellers actually hated beer halls.

Beer halls were not hated without reason; there was an incestuous connection between labour and municipalities.

They were run under what was known as the Durban System, where community beerhalls were setup to ensure labourers pay for the development of their own residencies through profits made from their drinking.

It was exploitative.

Fast forward to 2020, shebeens are returning but not for the same reasons.

Just like how defiant drinkers would risk being arrested by colonial police officers, many today risk a deadly virus just to tickle a throat itch.

KwaLizzy - a spot in Mbare, perhaps Harare’s most populous suburb - is among the most prominent of reborn shebeens in Zimbabwe.

Organised chaos rules, and a new patron struggles to gain entry and order s beer. In the absence of a regular, you will be lucky to get served.

This is standard at shebeens; after all, they are illegal.

A bouncer at KwaLizzy agrees to talk to The Southern Times on condition we do not reveal his identity.

“This place is very active on Sunday nights, you would wonder if these people are going to be working the next day,” he says.

“We get all sorts of people here, I can tell you, very few businesses gross as much money as we do on a good night.”

The appropriated parking lot bears testimony to this, as we have struggled to find a spot to leave our car.

“It is safe here, the boys (law enforcement and security agents) come in and they either drink with us or order takeaways,” a regular patron informs us.

The reborn shebeen, like it’s colonial era forebear, is a revolutionised social space and an equalising rendezvous where everyone is equal and just wants a drink.

But social distancing doesn’t exist in this space, no one does temperature tests and - of course - drinkers don’t wear masks.

 

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