Windhoek’s shebeen headache
Shebeens in Southern Africa have a long and colourful history.
In South Africa they were the meeting point where people thrashed out social and political questions of the day during the dark times of apartheid.
They have since evolved in that country, taking two distinct routes.
One can still find the “typical” shebeen, a real “mama's” place in Soweto where the poor blacks meet after work (or more accurately at any time of day) to have “one or two” while discussing matters close to their heart.
The other type of shebeen in South Africa is a carpeted place with leather sofas and the finest in entertainment technology, with the most expensive whiskies and cigars available for the well-heeled patrons.
Of course, the differences are not so clear cut and there are many nuances in between these two types of shebeens.
In Zimbabwe, shebeens were anathema to the Rhodesian government and they were largely banned during the colonial era.
Due to the proximity with South Africa though, they thrived in the second city of Bulawayo.
The fad is catching on in Harare, where upmarket houses in the leafy suburbs are turned into shebeens for a select patronage, normally in evenings or on weekends only.
One can find a smattering of shebeens in Botswana. Business has not been good from the time no-nonsense President, General Seretse Khama Ian Khama assumed the high office and – with understandable military-like disdain for ill-discipline – started instituting tougher anti-alcohol laws.
In Namibia, as in South Africa and perhaps because of the close historical ties the two countries share, shebeens are a major source of household income.
If anything, Namibia has a bigger “shebeen culture” than South Africa itself.
The shebeens are mostly found in informal settlements and rural areas.
They are often just shacks constructed of corrugated iron sheeting, though in rural areas a few tree branches and other rudimentary materials will suffice.
An unproved statistic is that more than 50 percent of the houses in the sprawling high-density suburb of Katutura in the capital Windhoek have a shebeen on the premises.
This is known as the “Indoor Sheebens Business”, where alcohol is mostly sold to visitors, neighbours and friends.
The competition to sell a bottle of lager or draught is quite stiff with so many players in the market.
The hub of Katutura's shebeen empire is Eveline street; a road in the Green Well Matongo area.
The roughly mile-long street is a stretch of shebeens, pubs and braai stands catering for those who like a little salt with their drink.
An interesting additional feature is the presence of car washes, which are probably there for those drivers who use the excuse of a vehicle in need of cleaning to escape the home for the comfort of the shebeen.
Residents of the area say most shebeens are operating on a 24-hour basis: there is no difference between day and night as loud music and the sounds of people enjoying themselves – or fighting – are a defining characteristic of the locale.
This also means young children are exposed to heavy drinking and the attendant vices that come with it from the time they venture out of their parents' homes.
For some kids, everything is normal because their homes are shebeens.
Seeing a stabbing, hearing gunshots or witnessing domestic violence in which an inebriated woman gives out as much as her drunk husband does is all part of the daily fare.
Interestingly, it appears most of the shebeens are owned by people who do not even stay in Katutura.
“Do you think these shebeens are owned by people from around? No, it’s people that are staying in town and elsewhere.
“They have what it takes to buy or rent these houses for business,” says a resident of Green Well Matongo, a section of Katutura.
“I do my homework at school because at home there is too much noise. Our customers like music and they always play the jukebox when they come to drink,” adds Nelao, whose mother runs a shebeen at home.
Some experts say shebeens have contributed to low pass rates and lack of motivation among school-goers.
Apart from the noise and general chaos surrounding shebeens, many children have to help out at the bar or in some other capacity after school hours.
Shebeens in Namibia operate under the Liquor Act of 1998.
The Act was instituted “consolidate and amend the laws relating to the control of the sale and supply of liquor; and to provide for matters incidental thereto”.
The process of securing a liquor license to operate a shebeen was simplified in 2006 by the Ministry of Trade.
This was after countrywide demonstrations by shebeen-owners that year.
President Hifikepunye Pohamba had said all shebeens must be registered and those without licenses must be shut down.
Shebeen-owners protested that the registration process was cumbersome and the bureaucracy relented and tried to make things easier.
But with the concessions from the state, many shebeen owners are still not in compliance with the law.
According to officials at the Windhoek Regional Magistrates Office, which institution is responsible for issuing liquor licenses, many outlets are not even licensed.
“Out of more than 1 000 shebeens in Windhoek, only about 5 00 are registered and in possession of liquor licenses,” says an official.
One survey by the City shows there are approximately 1 550 Shebeens in Windhoek. Of these, only 540 are approved and registered.
Some activists say shebeens are responsible for an increase in alcohol consumption, underage drinking and use of illegal drugs.
Preliminary findings on the extent of alcohol and drug use in Namibia reveal that alcohol abuse is on the rise. Medium and high-risk drinking is more widespread among young people than elderly people.
In 2004, the World Health Organisation estimated that there were about two billion people worldwide who consume alcohol and 76.3 million who may have diagnosable alcohol use problems.
One estimate is that an astonishing 56 percent of adult Namibians drink alcohol (either heavily or socially) and eight percent suffer from alcohol-related illnesses.
Health and Social Services Minister Dr Richard Kamwi last year warned Namibians not to allow themselves to be turned into a nation of drug-consumers.
“While it is unlikely to be helpful to create a large class of young offenders who are imprisoned or saddled with criminal records, there is a need for under-18 year-olds to take responsibility for abstaining from alcohol consumption and from using fraud to obtain alcohol illegally.
“We would suggest that enforcement and prosecution should continue to focus on the sale and supply of liquor to underage persons rather than the consumption of liquor by underage persons,” Dr Kamwi said.
• This is an abridged version of an article that was first published in The Southern Times issue of April 6-12, 2012.