Shebeens’ dreams go up in smoke

Thuletho Zwane

First published Mail & Guardian

There are only four entry points to Sharpeville, a township situated between the two large industrial towns of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging in southern Gauteng. They all connect to one road, simply referred to as Main Road by the residents.

Sharpeville is still largely divided along apartheid lines – there is a small third for isiZulu-speakers, and the rest for Sesotho-speaking Basotho groups.

Just off Main Road where the Basothong shops are, you will find Malefane “Dutch” Kopa’s shebeen. At 79, Kopa uses crutches, has a grey beard and wears a navy blue Windhoek Lager cap.

Dutch, as everyone calls him, uses the crutches to help him balance when he stands up, but seems to walk easily without them.

As a shebeen owner, he will be affected by the department of health’s draft public smoking laws, which will prohibit any indoor smoking, even in purpose-built, closed-off smoking areas.

Set distance
The proposed legislation also states that smoking will only be allowed more than 10m from a door, a walkway or a window and, if implemented as it is, tavern and shebeen owners would have to enforce the new legislation.

“I don’t see how [health minister Aaron] Motsoaledi plans to implement that,” an animated Kopa says. “My neighbour’s house is less than five metres away. I mean, look at where your car is parked, it would be difficult for another car to drive past, let alone find a space 10 metres from a house.”

Kopa’s family was one of the first to be relocated to Sharpeville in 1957 from Top Location, an interracial residential area perceived as being too close to white areas.

There, Kopa was the drummer in the famous African jazz band the Sharptown Swingsters, a position central to how he would later become a shebeen owner.

“It wasn’t like now where people buy fridge loads of alcohol and spirits, place a sign outside that reads ‘tavern’ and start to sell. We had to hide,” he says.

Musical meeting place
From 1957 to 1972, Kopa’s two-roomed house in Sharpe­ville was the meeting place for the Sharptown Swingsters. The band rehearsed every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday after work and sometimes until dawn. During rehearsals they would talk politics, oppression and current affairs.

All they wanted was to play some music, have fun and drink some beers, so Kopa decided to start smuggling in a few cases for each rehearsal. Songs were composed and recorded there.

“My shebeen was started by friendship,” he says with a wistful smile.

He remembers how at first he was forced to buy alcohol from the municipal liquor store a few kilometres from his house. But it was not long before he stopped because the police’s liquor squad would wait for him to pay for his beer, confiscate it when he left the municipal office and fine him.

“That’s when we decided to leave in the dead of the night and drive to De Deur [a small dorp in the Midvaal area] to buy alcohol. The liquor squad was always on our backs so we would be forced to sleep in the open field sometimes or hide the alcohol at Tau Bazaar [one of the four entries into Sharpeville].”

‘Fun song’
Kopa sits on one of the plastic chairs outside his shebeen and starts to hum the tune of the Sharptown Swingsters’ first song, V-blues, and then a song made famous by Stimela and Ray Phiri as Whispers in the Deep.

Kopa calls it Kawumphinde Mzala. “Those guys made their own rendition of the song. We recorded it a long time ago, before them, ha rene rele jwaleng, re nwa, ho le monate [when we were out drinking and having a good time],” he says.

The original version of the song was in Sesotho – Hao rephethe motswala (Another round of drinks, friend) – but when the Swingsters turned it into a song, they decided to translate it into isiZulu, Kawumphinde Mzala. “It was a fun song for us,” he says.

From 1973, Kopa turned his fun-time shebeen into a business venture. With its proceeds and those from his job, he was able to extend his house and, over time, to build three rooms for his shebeen in his backyard, and take care of his six children. 

His music afforded him and his band the opportunity to travel the world. Kopa says he played in Botswana, Zambia, England and the Netherlands. They would be smuggled out of South Africa in a small aircraft, flying below the radar, until they were in a neighbouring country, where they would charter a larger plane.

Pensioner clientele
Kopa still serves a clientele of close friends. Most of his customers are pensioners with an average age of 65. He has turned one of the shebeen rooms into a smoking area. He says, if the regulation to prohibit indoor smoking is passed, he would lose the little clientele he has left.

The president of Gauteng Liquor Forum, Linda Madida, told the Mail & Guardian that the proposed legislation was not only impossible to implement in townships but would also be hard for people like Kopa, whose shebeens were their main source of income

He says registered taverns and shebeens would be hard hit because most people who wanted to drink and smoke would then spend their time in unregistered, underground shebeens where the law would not be enforced.

“The only thing these laws will achieve is to bring in more income for corrupt police officers who will use this regulation to solicit bribes,” Madida says.

Current smoking regulations are already strict and separating smoking areas from nonsmoking areas has cost registered owners a lot of money, he says.

‘No space’
He adds they would have liked more engagement from the department on how the proposed legislation would be enforced in townships where, in some areas, people are likely to be attacked or robbed if they walk too far from where they are drinking.

“Unfortunately that is the reality of townships – there is no space,” Madida says.

The department of health spokesperson, Joe Maila, says: “We must not always only look at the side of people who want to make money. Smoking affects people negatively and the repercussions are massive.”

He says the escalation of communicable disease is a serious matter, and South Africa is in line with international trends.

Other countries such as Australia have also taken a harsher stance against smoking.

“If we have to implement legislation to save lives then we will do so,” Maila says.

Potential police corruption
However, no new regulations have been implemented yet and the department is still going through the input given by different people and institutions.

Referring to the possibility of the new regulations breeding police corruption, Maila says corruption is a criminal offence and should be separated from the issue of regulating smoking.

But while the debate continues between the department of health and tavern and shebeens associations, Kopa continues to entertain his friends.

“This morning, three teachers came knocking at my door at 7am. They just wanted a place to have a good conversation and a good time because it is school holidays. This is what I am here for.”

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