Thirsty Thursdays: Joburg Beer in Soweto Shebeens, South Africa
What’s a Shebeen? It sounds like a Scottish or Irish word, doesn’t it? Well funny you should say that, because actually the word “Shebeen” is originally Irish/Gaelic and translates into English as “illegal whiskey drinking venue” (or something of that ilk). “Shebeens” have become famous in places such as the USA and Zimbabwe. But actually I first went into a Shebeen while staying in the historic and charming city of Soweto in Gauteng, South Africa. Soweto is a wonderful, mammoth sized “neighbourhood of people” revelling in post-Apartheid era South Africa. One of the things I had to do when I was there, was visit a “Shebeen” and do it on my own. In the end I visited two, one on my own and one with a group as part of the famous Soweto Bicycle Tour.
Shebeens were originally places for the locals to congregate and drink illegally. Unfortunately under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, one of the rules meant that black people could not enter or drink in white pubs. A very sad fact, but true none the less. But everyone wants to relax and unwind “down the pub” no matter what colour of skin or type of religion we are. So a culture of these Shebeens developed within the black townships of South Africa. The above picture was the first Shebeen we went into. Basically a small hut where alcohol is shared and consumed and people chat.
This is the area where we stopped off on the Bicycle Tour to first enter a local Shebeen. There was Solomon, our guide, plus a German guy, a US guy, an English guy and a Dutch girl. If you must this meant 5 white people, everyone else around was black.
Once inside the local Shebeen, the locals all bunch over and make room for you. Basically it’s like a pub inside a hut. Anyone’s welcome. Just come in, take a seat, grab a beer, have a chat and relax!
The beer is normally communal. In Soweto it is often Johannesburg Beer, which comes in milk cartons, has a pinky opaque colour and is very cheap. From the sealed milk cartons, it is then poured into buckets (white, clear or black) for communal consumption.
It’s dark inside and cosy. It’s also safe and friendly. It’s lively and relaxed.
Solomon gets us to buy a bucket between us to share with everyone. It’s a black odd shaped bucket with a straw lid. Inside is the pinky beer. Commonly known and packaged as “Joburg Beer: The taste of the big city” but known to the locals as “oom gom boat ay” (at least that spelling helped me pronounce it properly).
Solomon gets us all to introduce each other to everyone in the Shebeen, and caught in the moment I actually forgot everyone’s name. We will all be drinking from the same cup. And that’s not a metaphor.
At first, the five white people from our tour all sit together. But I didn’t like that so I soon decided to move over to the locals and sit next to them.
Here’s one of the cartons of Joburg Beer, in reserve. These guys and girls drink all day and get slowly drunk. It’s their way of life.
The other side of the Shebeen.
The black container with the Joburg beer or “oom gom boat ay” in it. We all had a sip then passed it round. The guy beside me videoed me sipping it, included below.
I sat on the other side and tried to chat and enjoy the locals. they speak a range of languages and they knew a few words of English. These guys were really happy to spend time with us.
They are interested in unusual and different things to their normal everyday lives. May that be a colourful guest, a hippy with big green hair, or even a man from Bangor with a travelling flag, they were very happy to chat, offer me more “oom gom boat ay” and pose with my Northern Ireland flag. One of them then wanted to take my flag, sit in the middle and say a prayer for us all, so naturally I let him…
Draping my Northern Ireland flag round his back he raised a glass and got us together to listen. We closed our eyes as he said a prayer.
This man was a total gentleman and the remaining English words from his prayer that I picked out were something like “whoever you are, God Bless you all”.
One of my favourite travelling flag photo memories – the “God Bless you all” moment in this tiny Shebeen in Soweto, South Africa. I reminded a few of the folk that it was the Irish who had invented the Shebeen. It fell on deaf ears.
Of course these Shebeens are scattered all over the place and they don’t have names. They certainly don’t have food menus or take credit cards! But they definitely have real atmosphere and friendliness about them. The above Shebeen, is the one I first visited with the group. It doesn’t have a name. But i have no doubt that as I type this right now, yet more “oom gom boat ay” is being consumed inside.
“The Bar” beside the Shebeen contains just one product, the only one everyone drinks together – Joburg Beer or “oom gom boat ay” as the locals will have you say. Incidentally the taste was quite sour, rather like a milky wine, it had floating bits in it, it was of low percentage alcohol and I, rather enjoyed it!!
A few days later, I visited a local Shebeen on my own, being invited to drink outside this time. The lady and man who owned the flat/Shebeen welcomed me in and even got an advertising board out for me to enjoy as a tourist and to pose beside – Joburg Beer – The Taste of the Big City. Nice catchline.
My Shebeen host brings over a fresh milk carton of Joburg Beer and an empty jar from which to drink it communally out of.
The famous Joburg Beer. Pink, milky, winey, but still BEER! I asked if I could keep the sticker for my collection and they let me.
The locals all come and join you. If they see a white person, they know you are an interested tourist wanting to meet them and make new friends. They are friendly and the kids love to chat. Holding my Joburg beer! With one of the local kids.
I has asked for Joburg Beer specifically, but one of the other guys was drinking the normal local lager. I think it was Carling. Incidentally, I tried all those local beers too, but when in a Shebeen with the locals, it just has to be Joburg Beer! We poured it from the jug into the jar. It’s oddly not kept cold. There’s no need for it.
My hosts advertise the local beer and their own Shebeen. More of an outdoor local beer garden!
They loved to pose for photos and were happy for me to take these. It would be nice to somehow find them again sometime and give them copies of these photos.
Such a friendly bunch of people.
They also took a few photos of me, here in the shade drinking Joburg Beer.
Here we are all together posing! I love this photo (hence its double inclusion in this very report! I have my Joburg sticker stuck to my Northern Ireland shirt!
My drinking buddy! The saddest thing for me is that the names were all unusual ones and I didn’t take my pen of paper with me to make notes and remember them. My memory for names is very bad. But the people were all very welcoming and friendly.
Another of the guys who was drinking in the Shebeen was wearing a South Africa top. We talked a lot about football and he wished Northern Ireland good luck for the World Cup in 2014.
My Shebeen experiences were both very different and very amazing. I’d recommend going to a Shebeen especially in Soweto. When life takes me to Africa again, I’ll be back in a Shebeen making new friends no doubt. One last photo of the famous carton of Joburg beer above then!
What Is It? – A Shebeen (a drinking den) Shebeens Visited – 2 Where – Orlando West, Soweto, Gauteng, SOUTH AFRICA Beer – Joburg Beer (or “oom gom boat ay”) Nationalities Met – South African Key Song – (SO) WET WET WET – SHE (BEEN) ALL ON MY MIND: FIRST SHEBEEN, SMALL HUT, ORLANDO WEST, SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA: IN THE SHEBEEN GETTING READY TO TRY JOBURG BEER (“oom gom boat ay”):
IN THE SHEBEEN TRYING JOBURG BEER (“oom gom boat ay”) FOR THE FIRST TIME:
JUST AFTER THE GOD BLESS YOU ALL SPEECH WITH MY NORTHERN IRELAND FLAG IN THE SHEBEEN:
SECOND SHEBEEN, GARDEN IN FRONT OF FLAT AND ORIGINAL SHEBEEN, ORLANDO WEST, SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA: THE OUTDOOR SHEBEEN IN ORLANDO WEST, SOWETO:
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