Botswana — Legalise shebeens

The composition defied the conventional pigeonholing that determined that a song on record should not last longer than three or four minutes in order that it should get ‘airplay’.

Every South African township resounded with the melody and beat of Mannenberg in the 1970’s, spilling over into neighbouring countries and onto the international arena, where the exiled musicians played it.

On one whole side of the vinyl, the song captured the social contradictions of apartheid South Africa but, at the same time, invigorating the spirit of the black peoples of the region in their search for an alternative to adversity and emotional violation.

In Extension 10 in Gaborone, a group of exiled South Africans urged Meisie Pilane to open her house to them so that they could socialise without risking the possibility of running into South African spies and soldiers in the hotels and other public places in the Botswana capital.

Mannenberg became ‘ like the foyer of the President Hotel ‘ a meeting place for travellers, night lifers, musicians and folk who just wanted to hang out in the neighbourhood.

In township language, the place would have been called a ‘shebeen’ or a ‘spot’ that did illegal trade in liquor. The patrons chose to call it Mannenberg, after one of the most popular songs to come out of Southern Africa.

Then there was Salome’s at House 2511, next door to 2512, where one detachment of the Black Consciousness Movement exiles lived just around the corner from Mannenberg. Salome died in a horrific accident on her way from the Oasis Inn, where she had taken a relative for a swim.

In Dick Bayford’s neighbourhood at Bontleng there was the ever-reliable Mmakgoleng, who not only served customers on the spot, but also supplied the smaller shebeens in and around Gaborone.

Mmakgoleng’s never slept. As legend would have it, she was also a stalwart supporter of the Botswana Democratic Party who never wavered until she passed away. The late Nancy Mosielele’s joint was the place to rest in the midst of the hectic political campaigns that changed the political face of Gaborone in the mid 1980’s.

It was the place for adult discussions where Councillors Dube, Marumo and Rantao strategised and concluded the business of the day. Auntie ‘Mamsie’ ‘ Nancy’s mother ‘ was one of the kindest motherly figures who gave refuge to many South Africans who were in exile then.

It was not unusual to find the likes of pioneer lawyer and African National Congress secretary general, Duma Nokwe, and international affairs secretary, Thabo Mbeki, at Mamsie’s when they were in town for deliberations with the government.

Mmabatshidi’s provided an outlet for the Extension 11 neighbourhood and the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland campus before the student representative council tuck shop opened. ‘Thanks’ was a favourite for Molefe Mpolokeng, as was Sis V’s place behind the Gaborone Secondary School grounds going towards where Pop Inn is now located.

There were several of these social landmarks in Lobatse, Francistown, Serowe, Maun, Mahalapye and any other towns or villages. The shebeens were run almost exclusively by enterprising women who generated household income when the men were out of work.

Then, the shebeen was a formal township institution away from the bourgeois pretences of the people who were trying very hard to mimic the behaviour and mannerisms of the whites. The shebeen gave the enterprising women of the community access cash that would otherwise go to foreign owned hotels. (The theory was that it was not permitted to drink at the bottle stores, many of which were the first line of business enterprise for the aspiring blacks who were taking over the political administration of the newly-born Botswana).

In tribute to these beautiful women, and for the sake of common sense, and in consideration of the role played by shebeens even in political circles, it seems the logical thing to do is to legalise the shebeens in the same way as South Africa has legalised the ‘taverns’. ‘ Mmegi/The Reporter.

September 2006
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