Shebeens (South Africa)

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SouthAfrica map.png
Location: South Africa
Definition: Illicit establishment serving alcohol, particularly to black Africans under apartheid
Keywords: South Africa Sub-Saharan Africa Alcohol Food Hospitality Apartheid
Clusters: Market Functional ambivalence System made me do it Survival Informal entrepreneurship
Author: Nicolette Peters
Affiliation: Department of Political Studies, University of the Western Cape, South Africa
Website: Profile page at Researchgate

By Nicolette Peters, Department of Political Studies, University of the Western Cape, South Africa

Informal alcohol outlets commonly known as shebeens operate in South Africa’s townships. The Oxford Dictionary defines shebeen as, ‘an unlicensed establishment or private house selling alcohol and typically regarded as slightly disreputable’ (Oxford Dictionary 2015[1]).

The word shebeen was coined in the late eighteenth century from the Anglo-Irish síbín, from séibe, mugful (ibid). It was commonly used in Ireland and Scotland as well as South Africa. Currently shebeens are the most widespread enterprise in South African townships; the Western Cape is estimated to have 25,000 unlawful shebeens and 152,500 people working in shebeens (Barnes 2012[2]).

Shebeens sell legally manufactured alcohol, but in an illegal fashion (i.e. without a licence). There is no economic incentive for them to sell illegally produced alcohol because legal alcohol is cheap and accessible. Indeed, South African Breweries (SAB), which dominates the South African beer market with a market share of 95 per cent, actively supports shebeens and in turn is dependent on them – over 82 per cent of SAB beer is sold in shebeens (Tsoeu 2009: ii[3]).

In 1902 licenses were introduced for traditional beer sellers in South Africa, which led to the growth of shebeens (La Hausse 1992: 89[4]). During the colonial and apartheid eras, the manufacture, distribution, sale and use of alcohol were regulated by the Liquor Act 30 of 1928 and the Native (Urban Areas) Act 21 of 1923 (Cameron 1999: 14[5]). These statutes prohibited the supply and delivery to, or possession of, alcohol by ‘non‐whites’. Only white people could trade liquor; black people could only drink at beer halls introduced in 1908, established to fund the improvement of black areas, though the profits were in fact not used for this purpose (Freeman and Parry 2006: 4-5[6]). In addition, Singer claims that the regime ensured that alcohol was more easily obtained by Indians and ‘coloureds’ than by black Africans. These racial restrictions on alcohol forced black people to enter the illegal alcohol industry, and consequently led to the growth of shebeens as an act of resistance to the apartheid‐era exclusion (Singer 2003: 2[7]).

Despite the legal restrictions, black women brewed and sold traditional beer, and rural women played a significant part in creating urban shebeens (La Hausse 1992: 86[8]). The beer industry was unique in that it was mostly controlled by black women, known as ‘shebeen queens’. Shebeen queens gained prominence in a political context due to their key role in the Cato Manor Beerhall Riots of 1959 and the killing of nine policemen in riots seven months later. However, shebeen queens were mostly apolitical and simply sought to earn a livelihood: their opposition to the municipal beer halls (symbols of the apartheid government) was motivated by the need to protect their own revenue (Edwards 1988: 75-6, 95[9]). Shebeen queens were not always the owners of the shebeen: some shebeen queens managed shebeens for men. Shebeen queens used their femininity and that of their female workers to encourage patrons into purchasing alcohol (Tsoeu 2009: 127[10]).

According to Hernando De Soto, the law on shebeens restricted economic growth under apartheid by limiting informal businesses (Marquez 1990: 209[11]). Shebeens could have been legalised had the barriers to entering the formal economy been lifted, which could have enhanced economic growth and employment. Likewise, lifting barriers to entering the legal alcohol trade in the post-apartheid era could lead to economic development, but since 2010 moral and public health arguments have pushed legislation in a different direction.

The views of the African National Congress (the ruling party since 1994) and the Democratic Alliance (the official opposition party) illustrate the existing tensions regarding shebeens. The ‘moral regeneration movement’ originated in the 1997 meeting between Nelson Mandela and key South African religious leaders, followed by the 1998 ‘moral summit,’ where Mandela spoke on the moral agenda for the regeneration campaign. The central problem discussed was crime (Rauch 2005: 16[12]), without much focus on shebeens. However, the moral regeneration movement has subsequently advocated a stricter alcohol policy. While not explicitly criticising shebeens, the movement has called for the law to ensure that premises selling alcohol are not set too close to one another, and that new licences should not be awarded in communities where this is already the case (Mdhladhla 2012: 5[13]). These recommendations would impact shebeeners, especially those in poorer areas where the proximity of shebeens is common. Similarly, the Democratic Alliance (DA) calls for more regulation of shebeens on its website, under the titles such as: ‘DA welcomes proposed clampdown on illegal shebeens.’ Media reports and the DA’s rhetoric suggest that moralistic framework has influenced the party’s views on both alcohol and shebeens.

Since 2009 the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has also come to adopt a tougher stance towards shebeens. The ANC youth league has called for a crackdown on illegal shebeens and a ban on all alcohol advertising. In 2011, the party chief whip, Mathole Motshekga, stated that abuse of alcohol and drugs has led to moral deterioration in South Africa. Motshekga reported that a group of women from the Cape Flats townships complained that shebeens were selling liquor to school children on a daily basis (Motshega 2011: 1-2[14]). In 2012, the Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, launched an anti‐alcohol campaign with the theme: ‘Towards an alcohol and drug abuse free South Africa – take a stand.’ In addition, the 2011 ‘substance abuse summit’ saw Dlamini and other participants calling for restrictions on liquor marketing and the re‐examination of licence fees (Parliamentary Monitoring Group 2012: 40[15]). Thus, both major parties express great concern about the harm caused by alcohol in South Africa. The availability of alcohol via informal outlets has certainly made it easy for people to access it; however, because shebeens are informal businesses, there is no direct way to measure to what extent shebeens contribute to alcohol-related problems.

The term shebeen is used to refer to similar establishments in several other southern African countries, namely Botswana, Zambia, and Tanzania. Shebeens and other forms of trading in illegal alcohol continue to exist within the developing world where informal business is one of the few accessible forms of employment for poor people. In South Africa today there are legal shebeens which operate. Legal shebeens are run from residential homes and possess the necessary alcohol trading licence to make the business legal. These include shebeens which converted to legal operation after the end of apartheid. Nonetheless, unlicensed shebeens continue to operate in South Africa today and constitute illegal, informal businesses. Shebeens continue to operate because of South Africa’s high unemployment rate. Poor people have chosen to operate illegal businesses to provide for themselves and their families. Shebeens are usually run by black or coloured women who are minimally or entirely uneducated. Shebeening is perceived as the only way they can provide for their families, and the establishments are therefore largely tolerated by local communities. The widespread practices of using or running shebeens continues to be under-researched, as shebeeners are usually reluctant to participate in research due to the illegal nature of their activity.


  1. Oxford Dictionary. 2015. ‘Shebeen’, 31 May, http://www.
  2. Barnes, C . 2012. ‘Shebeen owners to feel heat for crime’,IolNews, 12 July,
  3. Tsoeu, M. 2009. ‘Value Chain Analysis of the Formal and the Informal Economy: A Case Study of South African Breweries and Shebeens in Soweto’. MA thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,
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  15. Parliamentary Monitoring Group. 2012. ‘Unrevised hansard national assembly Thursday 1 March 2012’, 22 September,