shebeen /SHəˈbēn/

- more information about the project -

The project seeks to explore the complex nature of urbanism in Sweet Home Farm through an examination of the role of shebeens. The project entails a partnership and intellectual collaboration between the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation and UrbanWorks Architecture and Urbanism. The project was partially funded through the Sustainable Livelihood Foundation’s Formalising Informal Micro-Enterprises (FIME) Project. We acknowledge the financial support of South African Breweries towards this Project. Thanks to Alexandra from UrbanWorks for developing the web-site and the research team: Thiresh (architectural drawings) and Bronwyn (photographs) of UrbanWorks and Andrew (project coordination) Leif (analysis), Siwe (community facilitation) and Khaya (translation and facilitation) of Sustainable Livelihoods.

Exploring urbanism through shebeens in Sweet Home Farm

Sweet Home Farm is a densely populated slum settlement, situated on the periphery of Philippi. The settlement came into public attention in 2011 when a pack of dogs attacked and killed a young child. There are no formal houses or roads in Sweet Home Farm. The settlement is home to about 17,000 people who live in small shacks, closely packed together. Some houses have tiny, enclosed yards, though many have none. The area has no formal parks or recreational facilities.

The Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation undertook a study of micro-enterprises in Sweet Home Farm in 2011. Through this research we identified 109 shebeens and 14 community resources, including religious institutions. Businesses which sell liquor are the most numerous and significant type of micro-enterprise in Sweet Home Farm, yet their role goes beyond providing access to liquor. Many shebeens provide publically accessible spaces in which the residents of Sweet Home Farm can meet to socially engage, watch television, play pool and relax.

The project seeks to investigate this broader role of the shebeeen, examining it as a space (where people meet, socialise and drink) as well as the particular characteristics of place that distinguish one shebeen from another. Through an urbanism perspective, the project provides a unique insight into the impact of shebeens on life within Sweet Home Farm, highlighting the varying influence of different shebeens on the way people drink, engage socially and connect through business and cultural linkages.

In policy terms, the project aims to contribute towards renewed debate towards liquor control. The Western Cape Liquor Act was passed into law in April 2012. In terms of this Act, all unlicensed liquor traders were required to cease trading, whilst failure to abide with the law would result in prosecution (and potentially imprisonment). One of the core aims of the liquor act was to reduce the scope for unlicensed traders in the townships and informal settlements to obtain liquor licences, so as to reduce the number of legal liquor outlets in residential areas. In order to acquire a licence, shebeen owners are now required to have their property rezoned as commercial land (against which the City of Cape Town stands firmly opposed) and secure the approval of interested and affected parties within the community, including the ward councillor, neighbours and religious leaders. Moreover, the shebeen itself has to be formally constructed (meaning with brick and mortar), containing inter alia separate toilet facilities for men and women. These criteria mean that the shebeen owners of Sweet Home Farm (and other informal settlements) cannot obtain liquor licences and trade legally. If they continue trading (for reasons of economic survival) they are subject to the vagaries of law enforcement and must endure frequent police raids.

The political leadership of the Western Cape have justified their liquor control policy on the basis of the social harms that can be attributed to liquor in general and shebeen drinking in particular. Premier Zille has argued that their policy of shebeen eradication will result in reduced inter-personal violence, including domestic abuse, greater labour force productivity and better social cohesion. These goals are laudable. The reasoning behind these goals, however, has problematized shebeens as the cause of liquor related harms without considering the broader influence of poverty and the conditions of life in Sweet Home Farm and other similar informal settlements that influence people’s approach to drinking. The history of resistance to apartheid liquor controls towards shebeens suggest that a similar approach, as embodied in the Western Cape Liquor Act, will neither succeed in reducing access to liquor nor in closing off the main channels through which it is sold, namely the shebeen. The project is testament to this reality, though this is not our aim. On the contrary, we are concerned that the Liquor Act is more likely to drive informal liquor trading further underground and so perpetuate some of the harmful impacts related to irresponsible liquor trading.

The pictures, illustrations and drawings that constitute this exhibition show that shebeens are not simply home-based businesses, but spaces were social relationships are built and maintained, where people relax (mostly after work), reaffirm their cultural roots and traditions of drinking, meet friends and lovers, speak of those they have lost or good times and bad, and where, in summary, various aspects of life are lived. In this sense, the shebeen fulfils the role of the pub, restaurant or coffee shop, spaces (and places) which are central to middle class sociability. Through our detailed case studies, the project shows how different venues utilise micro-strategies of control to manage the environment and their clients to minimise and mitigate some of the harms that concern policy makers. Most importantly, these cases reveal alternative possibilities through which greater responsibility towards liquor and the regulation of businesses selling liquor can be advanced. We welcome a serious engagement.