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TThe first shebeens in South Africa were local bars and taverns where mostly working-class urban males could unwind, socialise, and escape the oppression of life during the apartheid era. The shebeens were also illegal. Today, they form a vibrant part of the community, and continue to define the social life of many South Africans.

In 1927, black South Africans were formally forbidden from selling alcohol or entering licensed premises. At the same time, the Great Depression forced a migration of rural people moving to urban areas to find work. Socialising is an inherent part of the human experience and these migrant workers wished to relax at the end of the day.

Did You Know?
TThe English word shebeen may be derived from the Irish-Gaelic word “síbín”. The Zulu word “shibhile”, meaning “cheap”, is another possible source.

BBecause South African women did not have to carry passes until the 1950s, many struggled to find work in the formal sector (employers preferred to hire people that they could track and control). In South Africa, beer brewing is traditionally a woman’s work. Known as “shebeen queens”, these women used their skills and provided traditional beer to the new urban class.

IIn apartheid South Africa, music, meeting in groups of more than three people, and even dancing were illegal. The taverns became a form of quiet protest. This was a place where patrons could express themselves culturally, and meet and discuss their day. Shebeens therefore played a unifying role in the community, providing a sense of identity and belonging.

Naturally, they also served as places where people could discuss politics—and in some places, plan for freedom. The police raided these shebeens constantly, arresting shebeen queens and political dissidents.

TToday, shebeens are a permanent feature of the South African social scene. Older establishments will have an incredible story or two, with old photographs on the wall, and probably some jazz playing in the background. You’ll also be treated to traditional dishes such as umfino (similar to spinach), samp (crushed maize), stew, pap (fine maize meal cooked to a firm consistency) and chakalaka (a spicy traditional condiment).

As South Africa’s cultural landscape becomes more integrated, modern shebeen-style nightclubs and eateries are opening up in areas where the new middle-class work and play. 

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