In parts of rural south Africa, village elders have come up with a simple solution to violence, murders and binge drinking: close the traditional bars-shebeens– where young men like to drink away the evenings and nights. Or at least, close them after sundown. In the daytime, when the same village elders like to drink, the shebeens stay open.
Mabhokomela Bonakele tips the heavy, navy-and-yellow plastic five-litre bucket and gulps gluttonously. Rhythmic waves of satisfaction pulse across his throat and chest. A sour smell so dense that it can almost be tasted hangs in the air and melds with the salt from the nearby ocean.
Bonakele’s hands are worn, his eyes blood red, his blue overall weathered. The local sub-chief clenches his fingers around the container that once held acrylic roof paint. It is a grip that signifies experience; he’s done this many, many times before.
“When I feel like I need a beer, I visit this shebeen. I don’t worry about what time it is,” he exclaims after a final swallow and passes the bucket of umnandi, or traditional Xhosa sorghum beer, on to the man next to him.
It’s a few minutes after nine in the morning. Outside the dark drinking den, the sun is already high in a turquoise sky, bathing the hut in warmth. Inside, the group of 11 elderly men began gathering about an hour before on a creaky wooden bench.
An 18-month-old boy tries to feed an emaciated dog some of his porridge. The food and the child’s fingers are covered with flies. He cries in fright when the mongrel unexpectedly jumps up against him, causing both the boy and his dish to fall to the ground. More flies descend to feast. The dog slinks away.
Sheep and cattle graze sluggishly on the green grass of Nqileni village in the former Transkei; some lie on the beaches at the bottom of the rolling hills, mimicking the tourists that throng the nearby lodge in summertime.
Women work in trench gardens in the mornings, digging out vegetables to cook later. Unemployed youngsters hang around on the streets or do house chores. For many of the older men, however, shebeens are the ideal way to pass this time of day.
“Usually I come for a drink just after nine in the morning, after my wife has served my breakfast,” Bonakele says. “Sometimes I meet my friend on the way, sometimes I just go by myself.”
The other men here, ranging in age from 60 to 80, aren’t really his friends; they’re acquaintances from the community. Most say they used to work on the platinum mines in Rustenburg in North West province. In this isolated rural community, they now survive on monthly government pensions of R1200.
The beer flows and the elders’ eyes sparkle and they become tipsy and merry. Bhasiqhongolo Dodwane, who is in his 70s, laughs: “I was on the mines so long ago I can’t even remember the year I stopped working.”
One of his buddies leans towards him and snaps: “You can’t remember much about anything, can you?”
Dodwane scoffs and waves a wizened hand at the man.
This morning the elders are debating the pros and cons of “the big machines from government” – yellow graders – that recently arrived at Nqileni to level the area’s treacherous gravel and mud roads. “We should ask them how much it costs to hire one to plough our lands because these machines look stronger than our cattle,” Msuthu Savo jests.
But Dodwane shakes his head in disagreement. “Maybe the machines can help us. But they’re ugly and there are too many of them. Besides, they make a big, irritating noise.”
It’s a village tradition throughout this part of the Eastern Cape: older men drink during the mornings and at midday and return home in the afternoon. They rarely go to shebeens at night and mostly consume traditional brew, which has an alcohol content of less than 3%, compared with the 5% that most commercial beers contain.
“If I have a lot of money, I buy lots of rounds. If I have little money, I buy only one or two. One round is five litres for R14 and we all share,” Bonakele explains.
The owner of this shebeen is a woman. Nozethile Nkwaza went to school for “only a few years” and can read and write “just a little bit”, so she says selling beer is the only way for her to supplement her income – which for most people here is in the form of monthly government child grants.
“For every 50 litres of umnandi that I sell, I make R186 profit. Sometimes I sell 50 litres in one day, sometimes 50 litres in a week. It all depends on whether I have enough ingredients and how many customers I get,” says Nkwaza.
While the patrons are drinking, Nkwaza is busy brewing her next batch of beer in a huge three-legged cast-iron pot on a fire. It’s a thick, gritty mixture of crushed sorghum, yeast and water, with creamy bubbles that emit a sour aroma. After cooking, the blend is poured into a bucket to ferment overnight.
“Men here like drinking traditional beer. I like their money. That is what I know,” Nkwaza explains.
In February last year, however, Nkwaza was forced to change her way of doing business drastically. In fact, something happened then that imposed change on many aspects of village life.
Shebeens like Nkwaza’s used to be open for business until long after midnight in Nqileni. During the daytime, she’d serve the elders; at night she’d blast music from her solar-powered stereo and sell beer to young people.
“I’d make money the whole day, the whole night,” Nkwaza recalls.
But then a man in his early 20s was murdered at a shebeen in the village. A local young man, Mabhuti Makawusi, says he witnessed the killing.
“He had been drinking late at night at the shebeen. Then he started arguing with some other men who had also been drinking. They started fighting and stabbed him with a knife until he died,” he remembers.
According to a local health worker, Nomzingisi Hopisi, the man died “next to the river close to a shebeen. Because they were drunk, they didn’t show their victim any mercy.”
It wasn’t the first violent incident at Nqileni; over the years there had been other stabbings and assaults.
Dave Martin, who together with the community owns Bulungula Backpackers, just about the only employer in the area, says that although murders in Nqileni are relatively rare “every single violent incident in the community, without fail, has involved alcohol”.
The incidents usually involve a friend stabbing another friend over “something as trivial as a girl, or cigarettes. And always both, or at least the stabber, are very, very drunk,” he adds.
The November 2011 killing was a turning point for the area. Bonakele and other community leaders and elders from Nqileni and three neighbouring villages called a meeting. At the gathering a dramatic announcement was made: from now on, no shebeen is permitted to sell alcohol after seven in the evenings.
“When people are drunk, they kind of go mad. Their minds are not right so they do all kinds of stupid things,” Bonakele explains. “It’s therefore no longer possible to buy alcohol at night here because we forced the shebeen owners to close down at night to stop the youth from killing each other.”
The rule has affected shebeen owners’ income.
While the chief is drinking at her shebeen, Nkwaza is reluctant to comment on the issue. But, just a few hundred metres away, Nongezile Mdibanto (below) is complaining heavily about “the worst year of business” since she opened her tavern 14 years ago. She says her top seller for years was Old Buck gin, mostly sold at night.
“People like drinking it just as it is, with no water or whatever. They say it is very sweet, like cool drink. But now I sell less than half of what I used to because I’m not allowed to be open at night.”
But even its detractors acknowledge that the rule represents a community success story: since its introduction in February 2012, there hasn’t been a single murder or stabbing in the region of Nqileni, says Bonakele.
“Now when someone is drunk but the shebeen is closed he can’t drink any more so he just goes to sleep. Before, people continued to drink until the early hours of the morning and they got into fights with knives and killed each other,” the community leader explains.
Unbeknown to Nqileni’s elders, who think the law unique to their area, evidence from around the world has shown that similar time-related alcohol bans are highly effective in preventing a range of social ills. They’re so effective, in fact, that the World Health Organisation is recommending the regulation of hours of liquor sales as one of its official strategies to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.
According to Charles Parry, head of the Medical Research Council’s drug and alcohol abuse research unit, crime figures in Siyahlala, an informal settlement in Nyanga near Cape Town, “plummeted” from five to eight murders a month to zero and 30 to 38 monthly assault cases to 10 to 17 of these between May 2006 and 2007 after shebeens were instructed to close by nine at night.
Although Mdibanto, whose only income other than her shebeen is a state pension, is unhappy about the drop in her earnings because of the alcohol curfew, she readily recognizes the “benefits” of the community law.
“As someone who is trying to make money from selling liquor, I can’t agree with the rule. I now only make a little bit of money. But as a member of this community, I like the rule because Nqileni is much more peaceful because of it,” she says.
Respected community members such as Martin and Bonakele are quick to point out that the elders’ early morning drinking is not considered problematic at all. “This has always been the culture here in the Transkei,” says the lodge owner. “The old men have a few beers and a chat and then they sleep.”
But, says Bonakele, the problem for a long time has been that the young villagers, particularly the young men, have “extreme” drinking patterns.
“This kind of ‘relaxing’ drinking, sitting around and just talking quietly for a few hours, is not for them. They drink until they can no longer stand on their feet,” he maintains.
Martin, who has a pub at his establishment that has also been affected by the rule, says until recently young people in Nqileni would either go drinking to get “absolutely hammered, or they wouldn’t go drinking at all”.
Dali Maleyile is in his early 20s and a manager of Martin’s lodge. He is off duty and slouches at the bar, enjoying a beer on a Wednesday afternoon. He’s one of the few people in the village with a job; seven relatives depend on his income to survive.
Maleyile says the young men of the area prefer drinking bottled commercial beer with its higher alcohol content. “They say traditional beer is for the old men and they’ll only drink it at traditional ceremonies.”
Maleyile adds: “I usually drink four quarts [750ml] of Hansa at a time but I’ll take more if I have the money. All of my friends drink like this, especially over weekends. It’s just because when you’re drunk you feel happy and forget about the boringness of this community.”
Maleyile’s and his friends’ drinking patterns, as well as the accompanying consequences, are no different from those in the rest of South Africa.
According to Parry, one out of every four South Africans engages in harmful or hazardous drinking over weekends. The country has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption per drinker anywhere in the world – between 10.3 litres and 12.4 litres pure alcohol per person per year, he says.
“Alcohol is the third largest contributor to death and disability after unsafe sex and interpersonal violence and accounts for over 7% of years lost in life through death or living with a disability,” Parry says.
A study published in the African Journal of Psychiatry in 2011 shows that young people indeed have very different drinking patterns from older people, and also drink significantly more, particularly in the case of men.
Maleyile’s and his friends’ drinking patterns, before the anti-drinking rule in Nqileni, and their consumption of four 750ml beers or more at a time, amounts to at least eight alcohol units and is thus serious harmful drinking.
Nqileni’s previous alcohol-related murder and violence is also pretty normal in South Africa: the links between alcohol use, homicides and purposeful injuries have been firmly established. According to Parry, between a quarter and a half of such events in this country can be directly attributed to alcohol use.
A 1996 South African Police Service study in the Western Cape showed that in 64% of cases in which the motive for a murder was known, and in 24% of cases in which the circumstances surrounding the murder were known, the crime had been committed after an argument or during a fight at or near a shebeen in which alcohol was involved.
Alcohol by no means puts only the perpetrator at risk of becoming involved in violence. Data from the government’s non-natural mortality surveillance system in 2004 shows that half of all people dying of non-natural causes in South Africa had high blood alcohol concentrations – as Nqileni’s murder victim is likely to have had. And a study published in the International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion in the same year found that 73% of Port Elizabeth hospital patients injured as a result of violence had breath alcohol concentrations far beyond the normal limit.
Martin has breathed and tasted these statistics. “The reality is that my wife and I have provided the ambulance service for this area for the last eight years. I have personally had to transport friends, both alive and dead, to hospital or to the morgue and had to fetch the bodies of people killed for stupid, stupid stuff,” he says. “Like someone insulting someone else’s father in a shebeen while the father wasn’t even there. And the son mistakenly thinking that ‘this guy is the one who insulted my father and stabbing him to death’ … That’s what was happening here all the time in these drunken environments.”
In the rural Eastern Cape, where state morgues are under-resourced and often malfunctioning, fetching the body of someone who died in an alcohol-related incident for a funeral can be extremely traumatising, says Martin. “It’s not like the body gets presented to you in a coffin. You get sent to an open area with 20 or 30 bodies lying naked on trollies and then you have to go and find your body. You have to take him by the ankles and wrists and swing him into a coffin. He’s leaking fluids; he’s stabbed. Then wrap him in his blanket and put him in his coffin.”
At one of the health facilities in the area, Zithulele Hospital, clinical manager Ben Gaunt says, although the amount of drinking in the area is “significantly lower” than in the cities, including in those villages that have not imposed the 7pm rule, the hospital sees about five cases every weekend where patients have been stabbed with knives or sharp objects and “most” of them are linked to alcohol. “Sometimes it also involves domestic violence cases where a drunk husband has assaulted his wife,” says Gaunt.
Alcohol-related domestic violence is also not uncommon in the rest of the country: a 2006 study in the journal Violence and Victims has shown that Cape Town men who reported alcohol use were twice as likely to have committed violent acts against their partners.
But heavy drinking continues to affect the lives of the people of Nqileni and surrounds negatively. “Some people, even elders, spend all their grant money on alcohol. They drink it gone,” Maleyile says. “They spend the whole day in the shebeen and then they go home and ask for food when they have wasted their money in the shebeen. Then there are big fights in their families and that law has only stopped a part of this.”
And, although HIV is largely not spoken about in the region, Nqileni is in the Amathole health district where nearly one in three pregnant women is infected with the virus, according to the government’s latest antenatal survey. HIV treatment, in the form of life-saving antiretroviral drugs, is available for free at state hospitals and clinics. But health worker Nomzingisi Hopisi, from the local aid organisation Bulungula Incubator, says she’s seen HIV-infected patients who take treatment but continue to drink heavily.
“They die,” she states. “They forget to take their ARVs regularly and fail to take their pills at the same time every day. Their illness then gets serious and they lose their battle.”
Research in 2009 in the journal AIDS has found that alcohol drinkers are 60% less likely to adhere to their ARVs than abstainers. Moreover, international studies have shown that binge drinkers are twice as likely to be infected with HIV as non-binge drinkers as alcohol abuse often facilitates unsafe sex.
Gaunt says excessive drinking can cause changes in the way the liver breaks down ARVs. “These changes may result in inadequate drug levels in the blood, which may lead to inadequate treatment or the development of resistance [to ARVs],” he says.
Despite the benefits of the ban on alcohol sales after seven in the evenings, the young people of the Nqileni area complain that it has largely destroyed their social lives. “This is not a big city with shopping centres and nightclubs. There is not even television here,” says Maleyile. “Shebeens used to be the only places we could go at night to have fun. Now they’re closed.”
He continues moaning: “I would like to drink something after work and I often work until 9.30pm. Now there’s nothing for me to do. I just go home and sleep. Life has become so, so boring here at night. With this rule the elders have basically told us we’re never again allowed to have a party for the rest of our lives. It is very unfair.”
And Maleyile and other youngsters are adamant that the rule has exacerbated binge drinking during the day. He gestures to a group of young men near the bar and barks: “You see here are my friends now, drinking as much as possible before the 7pm close of the bar – heaps of beers. They never used to drink so much and so fast. I am sure it is bad for their health.”
In an effort to alleviate boredom and to establish entertainment alternatives to drinking, Martin has started a community soccer league (see sidebar) in Nqileni and nearby villages.
The initiative is very popular but hasn’t assuaged everyone’s anger and frustration about the anti-drinking rule. Another young drinker, Bongz Olo, snaps: “What about all these elders who drink all day? Some of them drink too much and why is there no law against that? Why are they only targeting us young people?”
Back at the shebeen with Bonakele and his old friends, the sun is high in the heavens. The baby is asleep on a blanket in a corner, the spilt porridge dry around him.
Bonakele and his mates order their third and final round of sorghum beer.
Then they’ll return home to eat and doze the afternoon away.
Nkwaza brews her next round of umnandi and pours it into a vat to cool.
“I know the younger people are unhappy with our rule but, as for us older people, we are very happy with it and we make no excuses for it,” Bonakele says, wiping beer from his mouth with his overall sleeve. “We were all tired of dealing with cases of young people killing each other. Our aim was to stop the violence and we have succeeded.”
Bonakele’s friends nod in agreement.
“According to our culture here, it is the older people who make the rules. We don’t have to negotiate with the young people. That’s the way it is.”
Bonakele smiles, takes another swig of beer, and smiles again.
29 Oct 2013