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During apartheid, most pubs were off-limits to the black population. Illegal bars popped up in the townships as a result; places where people came together to drink, debate and listen to music. In the new South Africa, these ‘shebeens’ have become popular destinations for a night out. Here you can enjoy a drink in an informal atmosphere in the company of locals.
The word ‘shebeen’ comes from the Irish word ‘síbín’, which means illegal whisky. During apartheid, the shebeens did not have a liquor licence. The alcohol was traditionally distilled or brewed at home – usually by women, the ‘shebeen queens’. Apart from serving as a drinking establishment, the shebeens were also a meeting place for black politicians, activists and lawyers, where they could talk freely about social and political issues, making them an indispensable part of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Nowadays, the shebeens have a liquor licence and have become inviting and cosy neighbourhood pubs. Their patrons are happy to tell you all about the comings and goings of their neighbourhood while enjoying either a ‘regular’ beer or an ‘umqombothi’, a traditional African beer made of corn. There is also often live music, from jazz and reggae to DJs that play ‘kwaito’, the South African version of house music. Most shebeens serve simple traditional (and sometimes very spicy) meals.
The shebeens are located on almost every corner of the townships. Some are little more than four walls with a corrugated roof, while others have become popular hotspots. Wandie’s Place in Soweto in the Dube district is one such hotspot. In the 80s, owner Wandile Ndala had to select his patrons carefully, for fear that his illegal business would be revealed. Nowadays, everyone knows where to find him and he has even enjoyed such celebrity patrons as Richard Branson, Will Smith and Chris Rock.
Other shebeens have remained exactly the same through the years. Robby’s Place in Pimville, for instance, where the bigwigs of the ANC signed the Freedom Charter in 1955, is still the same simple, informal place to enjoy a drink. Other popular shebeens are Tysons (also in Pimville), Vardos (Mapetla), The Rock (Rockville) and Boyce (Diepkloof).
Although Mamma’s (in Greenside) has only been around since 2003 and cannot boast an illustrious past, it is one of the most famous shebeens in Johannesburg. The colourful interior does justice to the townships: the zebra pattern on the walls creates a warm African ambiance, the vibe is easy-going and the cocktail menu extensive. At night, the party breaks out when the DJ starts playing music. There is also live music on Sunday afternoons, perfect for a relaxing afternoon drink.