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Formalisation of shebeens through NLT and SAB means adding to the vibrant township economy – and preserving the shebeen’s rich history

The word ‘shebeen’ is loaded with history and stirs emotion in the average South African – be it good or bad. The first shebeens in South Africa were for mostly working-class urban men where they could socialise and they offered respite from apartheid-era worries. But they were also illegal. A 1927 law stated black South Africans were forbidden from selling alcohol or entering licensed premises – hence the shebeen was born. Indeed, shebeens became a cornerstone in the liberation of South Africa.

Now, they form a vibrant part of township community and continue to define the social life of many South Africans. However, this rich and telling history of the shebeen is no longer serving the community as being informal – they need to be able to create jobs and generate income for the local communities as their current format is outdated. This Entrepreneurship Month, we need to uplift these old businesses and take them to the next level so that they remain in place … but evolved to fulfil their role in the working of our economy and their local corners of the world. These changes are desperately needed to change the way we view shebeens as entrepreneurial hubs of economic building. Being a small entrepreneur has many challenges but this month we are focusing on making that job for shebeens easier. The tavern industry is estimated to be over R50 billion annually and is made up of over 39 000 taverns, employing over 250 000 people. This staggering number shows just how important it is to legitimise this industry.

This is why the National Liquor Traders and South African Breweries have partnered to formalise the informal trade of alcohol by helping shebeens attain licences. This move is one that lets shebeens better legitimise their businesses into formal trade taverns that can contribute positively to the township economy by empowering the industry to create employment. Recently, shebeens have lost their historical shine and have been placed at the centre of township troubles and have been given a bad reputation for being the cause of many social ills, while the many who run them are just trying to make a living. Giving these businesses wings will allow the people involved a much-needed boost in taking their shebeens from being the local watering hole where weekend fights occur to the place where people can come together as a community and build the economy – a legitimate place that empowers the community to be hubs of positive activity.

Since 2020 and the creation of the NLT through the support of the Beer Association of South Africa – and by extension, SAB – the issue of informal shebeens has been one of the top priorities on our list. Through the formalisation of the shebeen sector, we believe that once this sector is formalised, taverns will be able grow and create jobs in their communities where sustainable and quality jobs can be created so as to legitimise the industry of shebeens. Just as these spaces created a sense of community in the past, providing the space for the likes of Steve Biko to meet his compatriots and Miriam Makeba to entertain the patrons, they now need to evolve in how they provide to a community – by creating jobs.

So far, our plan is to convert 500 shebeens in the immediate future with a plan to further convert 2 000 shebeens in the next 18 months and this will represent about a 5% addition into the tavern space.  But it’s not just about the numbers. Converting shebeens into taverns – meaning the formalisation of the tavern sector – will mean that the taverns will be able to buy alcohol directly from SAB since they will be licensed, and this allows for growth to happen in that space from the root instead of having to circumvent the system. These past few days, SAB and the NLT rallied 400 informal retailers in Cape Town for an educational session on how to join the formal economy and to trade responsibly in their communities. The history was indeed rich – but the Liquor Act of 1927 is no longer in effect and there is no need for covert operations. The time is now to bring these meeting points of townships into the open and let them rise as the country embraces all parts of its cultural history.

Shebeens are a permanent feature with the older establishments sporting incredible stories of the days of old. Robby’s Place in Pimville is where the leaders of the ANC signed the Freedom Charter in 1955 and it’s still the same simple, informal place it was then. Tysons, Vardos, The Rock, and Boyce  sport old photographs on the wall probably taken by Alf Khumalo and Sam Nzima – apartheid-era photographers who snapped some of history’s most momentous events. South Africa’s cultural landscape is mapped out in the walls of these establishments, yet the time has come to change the business model in order to preserve the literal writings on the walls. But it goes further than that. Engaging with shebeens to formalise the business into legitimate entrepreneurial spaces not only keeps that history intact – it adds to it. Though I can say it’s not been an easy road. COVID-19 has impacted the liquor industry but we have persevered. We have found ways and means to work with the sales bans and given the importance of this project and its benefit to shebeens, we received overwhelming support from the informal sector, which was prepared to be formalised at all costs. SAB’s commitment to the formalisation of the informal trade is an achievement on its own and it should be commended for embarking on such an important project which has a benefit for all liquor manufacturers and not just SAB. The endeavour is one we are proud of and hope to grow so that the country can grow. Recent difficulties have shown us how resilient we are as a country and how much our people are able to withstand so we want to be part of the solution in legitimising trade, converting shebeens into taverns, and formalising businesses so that more people can be employed. The word ‘shebeen’ comes from the Irish word ‘síbín’, which means ‘illegal whiskey’. The essence of the shebeen can be preserved while still contributing to the community through job creation – there is no need for the illegal whiskey anymore. What is needed is a boost to the economy, which is in desperate need of jobs. That doesn’t mean that the shebeen will die. Quite the contrary, the formalisation of the shebeen is exactly what is needed to keep them alive and cement their place in South Africa’s future. Having that security and ability to employ local people means they are able to operate as they wish without devolving and becoming dilapidated, thus losing their history to dust. This move is how we preserve that history that has given South Africa so much character and sparked joy in the darkest of times and so that we can be on our way to economic recovery.

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