Here’s a bit of a lingo lesson. A shebeen, according to Wikipedia, is an illegal establishment (in Ireland, Scotland and South Africa) that specializes in the sale of distilled alcoholic beverages and is typically regarded as slightly disreputable. In the era of COVID, let’s visit the world of shebeens.
I grew up in South Africa, and I can assure you that shebeens were the most popular joints in the townships. Then, all official African drinking establishments were called beer halls, for men only (see the photo above). The sanctioned government drink was iJuba, a maize beer, pretty miserable stuff. The sales of spirits to black people were banned. So the shebeens were the logical alternative. They were constantly raided by the cops, and were either tolerated because they were handy centers of information gathering, or because payola was at work. Just about every South African, black or white, rich or poor, knows what a shebeen is. Since the transformation in 1994, Shebeens have become legal, and many proudly advertise themselves as such. The word is now part of the corporate language of the liquor industry. There are shebeen breweries and labels, going concerns.
South Africa has enacted strict rules in the age of COVID. All liquor or bottle stores are shut. Cigarette sales are banned. The ciggy veto is because it is a tradition amongst poor people to share smokes, so it makes some sense in a peculiar way. Naturally for the impoverished, the denial of basic pleasures or means to escape the hardship of daily life are not appreciated. Richer people can find ways to circumvent these inconveniences and are hardly held accountable. Poor people have to deal with far more illegal avenues to fit their needs, not to mention the aggressive popo. Like everything else, this is not fair. Obviously, public health is a priority. But it does bring to mind a political flyer I read years ago during a rash of police brutality episodes in New Orleans. It said, “They fuck us around at work, they fuck us around at school, now they want to fuck us around when we relax.”
The South African governors take credit for these harsh measures. South Africa is now ruled by a black led government. They are not like the Trump gang, who are in denial and are lying their asses off about everything. But there is something that their South African counterparts cannot fess up to and it is that they rule over a society that is fundamentally divided by injustice, a class and racial separation. In this regard, they are not that different than their bullshitting Yankee cousins.
So of course the shebeen industry in South Africa has blossomed again. And like the old apartheid days, it is now illegal. Talk about a 180 degree reversal. South Africa doesn’t need much nudging to make life extremely uncomfortable for people at the bottom of the pile. Unfortunately, this seems to come quite naturally to whoever is in power down there.
In 1978 when I lived in North London, we were trapped by the archaic English pub laws. It was hammered into us. Twenty minutes before 11 pm (closing time), we would order three pints. Years later, I remember that my eldest sister, who had been off the booze for a whiles, would even order a bunch of orange juices just because it was habitually engrained.
Fortunately there was a late night grocery store on the Willesden Lane. Owned by a couple of West Indian blokes, they flaunted the rules and one could go there and buy whatever hooch one wanted after midnight. I have no idea how they got away with it, but they did. The shop was so popular that the line would snake around the corner. They saved us on numerous occasions. The store is gone today. We gave it the due that it deserved. We referred to it as the Kilburn shebeen. It was like being back in Durban.
I can guarantee that the shebeen business is on the uptick internationally. If there were a stock market for illegal shenanigans, this would be a sound investment. The system wrings its hands about substance abuse, dealing, and the underground economy. They create the conditions for it. And then they punish people who are enacting it. Hell, if there was a shebeen around the corner from my place in Brooklyn, they’d get my money.