From Apartheid Breweries to Today: The Beer’s Bitter Legacy

By: Ramadimetja Makgeru

In anticipation of International Beer Day on the 4th of August.

Thobani, with his friends, sat back on a rusty metal chair in a dimly lit shebeen as the bartender poured the golden frothy liquid into their glasses. For many young South Africans like Thobani, a trip to the local tavern is a common ritual, a way to unwind and socialise. Yet, beneath the laughter and camaraderie, a story is seldom told—the bitter legacy of apartheid beer halls.

Today’s South African youth may be detached from the apartheid era, but its effects are as potent as ever, often showing up in the most unexpected places. Like that pint of beer, you sipped on last Friday night.

You see apartheid, beyond its overt political suppression, was an intricate system of economic manipulation and social engineering. One of its ingenious tools was the establishment of beer halls.

In the early 1900s, the apartheid regime, in an attempt to control the black population and fund local governments, set up beer halls across Black townships. The ploy was simple: make beer affordable and readily accessible, then control the sale and consumption to keep the Black populace pacified. And, not to forget, keep the coffers of the local governments filled.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s clear that the past is echoing into the present. The legacy of apartheid beer halls still lingers. Alcohol abuse rates remain significantly higher among Black South Africans compared to other population groups.

In the spirit of Ubuntu, it’s important to understand these disparities not as a moral failing of individuals but as the continuing ripples of systemic racial policies. The conversation around alcohol and Black South Africans should move away from shame and judgment towards understanding and action.

This isn’t about encouraging abstinence from alcohol or vilifying its consumption. After all, beer is more than just a drink; it’s an integral part of South Africa’s diverse cultures. From the traditional African umqombothi to the Afrikaner’s love for craft beer, brewing is woven into our national fabric.

However, it’s about acknowledging the bitter taste left behind by the apartheid regime’s policy. It’s about questioning how the echoes of the past still reverberate in our glasses and in our lives today.

We need to promote responsible drinking, not because it’s the “right thing to do,” but because it’s a step towards reclaiming our narrative, a narrative that was manipulated not so long ago.

Educate yourself and the people around you. Let’s make our shebeens spaces of empowerment, not exploitation. Let’s encourage initiatives that counter the abuse of alcohol in our communities. We can start by advocating for access to mental health resources, fostering open dialogues about alcohol addiction, and supporting local businesses that promote responsible consumption.

As we toast to our collective future, it’s time to critically reflect on the past. South Africa’s youth, it’s our turn to step up and rewrite the legacy of our beer. The revolution won’t necessarily be televised, but it might just be brewing in our backyards.

Let’s make sure our pints are filled with resilience, not resignation; hope, not despair; unity, not division.

Over to you, South African youth. What’s your take on our beer’s bitter legacy? Share your thoughts and experiences; let’s brew this conversation together.


About the author:

Ramadimetja is a freelance writer deeply committed to social justice. She uses her writing as a form of activism to amplify the voices of grassroots leaders and community members. She aims to produce insightful and thought-provoking work, often shedding light on underrepresented issues and challenges facing marginalised communities.

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