Beer drinking has formed part of African social culture for generations. While brewing traditionally provided women with an opportunity to generate home-based income, menfolk enjoyed a guaranteed beer supply for social occasions.
It was understandable, then, that the opening of a beer hall in Johannesburg’s Western Native Township in 1939 met with massive boycotts, led by women who feared that their backyard beer-brewing days were over.
In Johannesburg, Basotho women staged demonstrations and urged residents to boycott the Johannesburg City Council’s (JCC) beer halls. Initially residents responded to the call, but when they faced prosecution for doing business with their local brewmasters instead of the municipal brewers, their support soon waned.
Illicit brewers were opposed to the council’s beer halls for two reasons: they gave the Council a monopoly on the sale of African beer, and they stifled an easy means of making money. A compromise proposed by the local Native Advisory Board urged the council to allow residents to brew beer solely for domestic consumption.
The council finally relented, but went ahead with the construction of more beer halls in the townships during the 1940s and 1950s, leading to a massive increase in profits from the sale of African beer brewed by the municipality.
In 1950 and 1951 alone, municipal profits from beer sales hit exceeded £175 000 and by 1952, this had passed the £200 000 mark. Profits were ploughed back into recreation and welfare facilities.
Two decades after their introduction, beer halls such as the one at Dube Hostel were collectively generating a profit margin of more than £1-million per annum.
Initially the municipal brewery was manned by 26 staff working 12-hour shifts, but by 1957 an increased demand for beer saw 85 staff operating a round-the-clock process that churned out one million gallons of beer every month.
As the 1960s approached, inner-city and location-based beer halls were flourishing. However, this was all to change with the murder of a white man in 1959 near the Mai-Mai beer hall. On the strength of the crime, the Minister of Bantu Administration ordered the closure of all beer halls in the city.
To compensate for anticipated revenue loss, eight new beer halls were built in the townships during June of the same year. During the early 1960s beer halls were growing in number, and, combined with the removal of prohibition on sales of specific liquor categories to Africans in August 1962, sales and profits soared.
The demise of Sophiatown in 1955 and Alexandra township in 1962 served to restrict illegal beer-brewing to some degree. Following resettlement, the movement of Basotho women and their right to housing in locations was restricted in an effort to tighten control.
By the mid-1960s private shebeens began undercutting beer hall prices, prompting the JCC to join the fray and recapture its former market share. At this time the council opened the Langlaagte brewery, one of the largest breweries in the world at the time, with a daily production capacity of 200 000 gallons.
By the early 1970s Johannesburg townships and beer halls had fallen under the jurisdiction of the West Rand Administration Board (WRAB), which led to regular police raids on illegal breweries.
Traditional brewing nodes inhabited by Basotho families – Meadowlands, Zone 2, Diepkloof, Naledi, Molapo, Pimville and Phiri – were under constant surveillance.
In 1976 the Soweto riots saw student mobs attacking beer halls. Between 16 and 18 June almost every beer hall in Soweto had been trashed, with police intervention saving many from complete ruin. In Diepkloof, police killed several rioters as they fled from a beer hall.
Between mid-1976 and 1977 arsonists regularly targeted beer halls, leaving just one, the Jabulani beer hall, unscathed. Although buildings burnt down or destroyed by acts of sabotage were restored, the beer halls destroyed in 1976 have never been rebuilt.
The Diepkloof beer hall made way for industrial and residential development, while the Orlando beer hall remains as it was following the riots, testimony to one of the most turbulent eras in South Africa’s history.
Source: Soweto Heritage Survey final report, compiled by Steven Lebelo and Elsabe Brink