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Shebeen-seeing for tourists

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A How-to guide

beer-googles-01What nicer way to fill your Saturday afternoons than with a visit to the shebeen for a few drinks with friends, or simply for the experience and the opportunity to see new places.  The following is rough guidelines of ‘do’s and don’ts’ and tips on enjoying the shebeen culture. Since every experience is unique and full of surprises it is impossible to have it all perfectly planned.

Welcome to the heart of a township – the shebeen.

There are two ways to enjoy this cultural place:

There is the commercial way, which is comfy when you have a tight travel schedule, and is an easy way of getting around.  Several tour companies take people on tours to shebeens, usually the ones located in tourist areas like Soweto with a rich history.  This is also a safe way to experience shebeens, whether you’re local or from another country.  But as it is commercial, it sometimes lacks the true spirit of these places – since they are now full of tourists, and not locals.

1. The inside story of shebeens, and what to expect:

Shebeens used to be places where alcohol was sold illegally under the previous (Apartheid) government.  This has changed in the meantime, although you might still encounter the illegal sale of alcohol.  It is the pubs and grubs and grills of the townships; A place where friends meet to enjoy a drink and good company and unwind after a hard week’s work. Shebeens are usually small buildings, such as one big room with a counter on the one side, pool table(s), and a TV in one corner…and always speakers.  It’s not hard to spot a shebeen, since there is a lot of activity around it over weekends, and some shebeens have name boards or beer adverts on their building walls, others paint the name of the shebeen on the building.  Outside you’ll find “kratte” (crates) on a heap or in a circle on which the people sit. If you’re lucky they might have wooden tables.  Some shebeens have a braai area, where coals will be ready to braai on, and meat can be bought at the counter (don’t bring your own meat).  The barman serves behind the counter from behind bars for safety reasons.  Shebeens sell beer, and all the ones we visited so far were well stocked in several brands – so you are very likely to find your favourite brand…  (Also see photos of our visits.)

2. The pre-visit stuff:

Like any area in South Africa, there is always the issue of security, especially when traveling and being a tourist.  We can recommend visiting a shebeen in a group as chances are good you are traveling outside your safety zone.  And after all, you can’t social on you own, can you? Plus a group has security advantages attached to it.  Although many tourists would like to see shebeens and experience it first hand, it is not something everyone enjoys to the same extent.  Remember, this is the equivalent of a male sports bar – and I say male with no meanings of discrimination, this is unfortunately the way society works in this respect.  Like any “male dominated place”, woman might feel very uncomfortable, mostly because they are the topic of discussion, and some ladies might feel offended by the language used.  So dads, don’t take your 17 year old daughters with.  If you are friends with a local, invite him to join you – he’ll probably know the best spots too.

When leaving home, leave valuables at home: take only the bear essentials like a small amount of cash, your driver’s license, and a cell phone.  Don’t take cameras and super fancy phones – this is a security threat.

3. The visit: (the fun begins)

Gather your friends, and drive into the township to start shebeen hunting.  It would help if you or your friends know the local language spoken, but English is an okay backup.  You’ll get to see and learn a lot about a township this way.  The hunting involves opening your car window and driving around asking passersby where the nearest or best shebeens are. Like any part in a crime famous country, keep basic safety in mind, and keep doors lock etc etc. Although shebeens are the equivalent of sports bars in city areas, this doesn’t at all mean they have parking lots. People generally park on the sidewalks, or half-on-the-side-walk-half-in-the-road if they drive: most shebeen goers live in the area and simply walk. Again, basic crime and safety things – don’t leave valuables in the car, put the gear lock on, lock the doors etc etc.  Once inside the shebeen, have fun: get yourself and your friends some beer and then get a spot with open crates, drag it into a circle and have a great time!

You’ll find that shebeens are great places.  Now for that touristy nature of tourist: put the camera away.  This is not the place for cameras, especially not digital SLR’s and other fancy stuff.  If you want photos of you and your mates, take a cheap, simple camera with, and photograph your friends.  Do not randomly point the camera around and just photograph anybody!  This might be very tempting, but draw the line!  Consider people around you: how would you like it if someone you don’t know unexpectedly flashed with a camera while you are sitting unwinding in your local pub? Exactly! Remember, this is not your local bar.

Last thing: Keep the dangers of alcohol itself in mind. As friendly as a beer may be to you, evoking laughter and acting as a mediator in discussion, it can easily become a back stabbing bastard, leading to disputes and physical fights. Also take note that you will most likely need to find your own way home too, and with South African Metro Police around, driving irresponsible can be a bad idea.

Stick to this guidelines and you are bound to have a good time, and memories for a lifetime! Have fun, but be responsible. You might even walk away a man with more friends. We hope you find shebeens as great as we do.

If you would like to add to this, or comment on your experience at shebeens you visited, feel free to post it.


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