Did you know?
The English word 'shebeen' is perhaps derived from the Irish-Gaelic word 'síbín'. The Zulu word 'shibhile', meaning 'cheap', is another possible interpretation.
Unlicensed drinking establishments, have been around since trading ships first began visiting the Cape, but it wasn’t until the 19th Century that the shebeens of South Africa’s black townships became well established.
In apartheid South Africa, 2 events, the 1927 Liquor Act, which among other restrictions prohibited Africans and Indians from selling alcohol or entering licensed premises, and the Great Depression, were responsible for the emergence of township shebeens.
The economic effects of the Great Drepression were devastating to an increasingly poor and landless rural population, forcing huge numbers of black people to move to urban areas to seek wage-paying jobs.
Since African women did not have to carry passes until the 1950s, they were shunned by employers (who insisted on employees they could ‘control’), and struggled to find work in the formal sector.
To earn an income, many women turned to their former skills as beer-brewers. Rural Africa has an historic tradition of beer brewing. Customarily, women did this.
The women, who came to be called 'shebeen queens', made and sold beer to migrant workers who could not afford to buy the western beer, or who still preferred the traditional African beer.
Shebeens were township bars and taverns, places where mostly working class urban males could unwind, socialise, and escape the oppression of life in a segregated society.
Despite their illegal status, shebeens played a unifying role in the community, providing a sense of identity, and belonging, where patrons could express themselves culturally, and meet and discuss political and social issues. Often, police arrested patrons and owners.
As shebeens evolved, and became permanent features of the townships’ social scene, establishments competed to attract customers by offering live music, dancing and food.
Fast forward beyond South Africa’s 1994 elections, and shebeens, many of which are now legal, are increasingly sophisticated, and cater to a younger, trendier generation of black and white patrons and tourists.
A visit to a modern shebeen can be a fun and engrossing experience. Many establishments are suffused with history, be it displayed in old photographs on the walls, the style of music played - jazz is a popular genre - or the serving of traditional township dishes.
But you’ll also find modern comforts like big screen TVs, digital jukeboxes, collections of single-malt whiskies, and an international selections of beers. Some even have adjacent galleries selling local art.
The laid-back, attitude-free atmosphere of modern township shebeens is so popular among locals and visitors that many urban restaurateurs are copying their customer-friendly formulae, and setting up shebeen-style nightclubs and eateries in the poshest places.
A township invention, shebeens are now an integral part of the South African experience, and no visit would be complete enjoying their festive, easy-going vibe.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
618 Makhalemele Street
+27 (0)11 982 2796
6980 Vilakazi Street
Tel: +27 (0)11 536 1379
9138 Nonqawe Street
Tel: +27 (0)11 938 3337
Roots Restaurant & Gallery
Makhetha Shopping Center
Corner Mphuthi and Dimakatso Streets
Tel: +27 (0)11 930 3752
Jeya Jazz Corner
Sheya Kulati Circle
Corner Ferguson Road, Avenue A
Tel: +27 (0)41 4547567
NY 115, Shop 3
Tel: +27 (0)21 638 1355
18 Masithandani Street
Tel: +27 (0)21 889 7536