Final Word

An immigrant that is not hated, rather loved and toasted – often

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Not all migrants to South Africa are hated. In fact, at least one has become so loved and often toasted that he – or is it she? – is mostly assumed to be indigenous, by South Africans, black and white.

I personally met this immigrant for the first time at the end of 1969 as I myself, having just completed a BA degree in journalism in the tranquil town of Potchefstroom, migrated to Johannesburg. There I joined the newsroom of the morning daily newspaper Die Transvaler.

My first job was to, from late afternoon, tear the feeds from SAPA and other news agencies off the constantly clattering telex machines, order and stack them on the desk of night news editor. When there was a lull I was given a short filler, or two, to translate into Afrikaans.

The most important task of the day came somewhere between 11 and 12 at night as the first edition of the next morning’s paper went to bed for dispatch to the platteland (rural districts). It was part of a whole ritual, starting with a collection among the members of the newsroom.

The most junior member of staff – that meant me, at that stage – then had to drive to a late night cafe in Smit Street that was just around the corner from Johannesburg’s Park Station and belonged to a Lebanese guy called Harry. I would return with a bottle of brandy, some Coca Cola and, on the odd occasion, a meat pie or two.

Harry ran the ‘shebeen’ closest to the newspaper office. For those rare occasions that Harry would run out of stock, there was a back-up at an all night filling station in Doornfontein and another one in a small semi-detached house in Fordsburg.

Shebeens have also, for almost as long as most South Africans can remember, been part of life in black townships, dating back to the days when it was illegal to sell ‘white liquor’ to black people.

In fact, the definition of ‘shebeen’ as given by most dictionaries is “an unlicensed establishment or private house selling alcohol”. These establishments have become such an integral part of South African society that I have always just assumed it was a South African term, probably from one of the indigenous black languages. After asking around, I’m convinced this is the case with most South Africans.

A migrant from across the sea

It turns out that the term originated in the 18th century in Irish Gaelic and was first recorded as an Anglo-Irish term in 1781 for a “cabin where unlicensed liquor is sold and drunk” – something that chiefly happened in Ireland and Scotland as a way to escape tax in the form of excise duty. Often it served home-distilled whiskey and the term was sometimes used to indicate ‘illicit whiskey’ and/or liquor of inferior quality.

Explanations of the origin of the modern word differ about details, but it seems pretty certain the root lies with the Irish word séibe, a measure term meaning ‘mugful’. At some point it became sibin to indicate ‘illicit whiskey’. From the same root came Irish words like seibin, meaning ‘small mug’.

Fact is that the word ‘shebeen’ over time migrated to every corner of the world where English was spoken, from the United States (where it meant ‘weak beer’) to the West Indies, Canada, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Exactly how and when the word migrated to South Africa is not known, but it is the one country, besides the West Indies, where it has persisted to this day.

The term thrived here – something that can probably and rightfully be ‘blamed’ on apartheid, when blacks were not allowed as patrons in pubs and other establishments serving alcoholic beverages, although they were employed there as workers.

Traditionally in black culture, women were the brewers of sorghum or maize beer known as unqombothi in Xhosa, utshwala in Zulu, joala in Sotho and Tswana or doro in Shona. And, in response to the restrictive apartheid-era liquor legislation, a network developed of what was called Shebeen Queens, women running drinking establishments in black townships.

The women created shebeens as social establishments, serving not only ‘traditional’ beer and self-distilled alcoholic beverages, but also providing some entertainment from which, it is said, kwaito music developed.

Since shebeens have been legalised, they have become a fixture of township life, almost a South African equivalent of the British neighbourhood pub, and – as an integral part of the tourist industry – big business.

Maybe we are half right

There is a possibility that we might have been at least partly right in the assumption that ‘shebeen’, as we use it in South Africa, has an indigenous origin. It could represent a convergence between the Irish linguistic immigrant and the Zulu word shibhile, meaning ‘cheap’.

After all, we also have the expression ‘cheap whiskey’ to indicate liquor of inferior quality, blaming it for the next day’s headache.  

by Piet Coetzer

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