Alexandra’s black market for booze under lockdown

Underground liquor has a long history in South Africa. Its next chapter is being written under the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

In Alexandra, there may or may not be a street corner. Imagine that, on a recent grey and drizzly Thursday afternoon, a small hatchback was parked on this street corner. And consider, for a moment, that inside the car were two nervous men. Let’s suppose they had just finished their work for the day.

One of the men was in the township by choice, but spent most of the lockdown in his comfortable, north-facing, fourth-floor apartment. The other, a bona fide Alexandran, had done his best to observe strict lockdown rules in the face of some well-worn challenges. Density. Shared ablutions. A cash economy.

Their experiences of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, until then, could not have been more different. But in one respect, they stood on common ground: their homes had run dry of alcohol.

A wet kind of dry

As the lockdown deepened, so more videos of looted liquor stores surfaced. The booze that our protagonists had run out of was taking centre stage in South Africa’s ongoing obsession with crime.

A few days after they (might have) sat wringing their hands on that Alex street corner, Minister of Police Bheki Cele attributed a dramatic drop in South Africa’s serious crime to the unavailability of alcohol under lockdown. In part a phoney claim, some experts suggested. Murder and rape, for instance, are perpetrated most often by people who know their victims. With fewer opportunities to see one another, the decline seemed natural. But emergency services reported that, with cases of Covid-19 on the rise, health services were at least less burdened by alcohol-related trauma cases.

Back on the Alex street corner (on that Thursday, it might even have been named Desire), however, our two protagonists lamented their lockdown without libation.

They began to hatch a plan. One had some money. But without any know-how, was of little use beyond it. The other, who was low on dough, was all smarts. Glancing dramatically now and again out of the window, he explained that he could organise some booze.

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So how do transactions in the lockdown liquor economy look? Well, they’re different everywhere. In Delft, dustbins being dragged through the streets at odd hours are apparently a sure sign of alcohol delivery. But in Alex, they have all of the intricacy of a silver screen dope deal.

It starts with a call to a shebeen owner (our Alexandran knew one who was still in business, which helped). An order is placed (in this case, two bottles of whisky, any whisky). The customers meet the shebeen owner on a street corner near his establishment and a payment is made (R200 each for two bottles of whisky that, under normal circumstances, retails for around half that). Finally, the shebeen owner sends his customers to a stash house a block away, where a young boy runs out with a brown paper bag.

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Higher profit margins have always been a by-product of prohibition. In paying a heavily inflated price, our protagonists were only the latest customers in a long line. When canteens closed en masse after the sale of liquor to black people was first prohibited on the Witwatersrand in 1897, supply plummeted while demand stayed the same. A sure recipe for rocketing prices and profits. As historian Charles van Onselen has asked of the time: “What other Rand businessmen could point to a market in which competition had been reduced by 50 per cent at a stroke?”

Alexandra’s illicit market for liquor under lockdown mirrors Johannesburg’s earliest experiences of prohibition in more ways than inflated prices. Versions of stash houses were important back then, too, for instance. Criminal syndicates that emerged to service black consumers took out liquor licences on properties only if they had access to an adjacent property. While the licensed property was above board, elaborate infrastructure was installed on the adjacent property – including underground tunnels to the licensed property – to allow for underhand liquor sales.

Prohibition’s long Joburg history

South Africa’s underground market for liquor during the government’s coronavirus lockdown is, of course, not limited to townships. “Contacts” and price lists are doing frantic rounds on suburban WhatsApp groups. And it is this national reach, which envelops township and suburb alike, that distinguishes today’s prohibition from yesteryear’s.

When prohibition first raised its head in Johannesburg at the end of the 19th century, it was designed to turn consumers into workers, not intended to keep citizens alive.

Mine owners were initially keen on alcohol’s utility to control workers. Many mine managers were also personally involved in Joburg canteen businesses (the liquor stores of that time). Together with business-friendly licensing bodies, this meant that liquor sales to black people flourished before the turn of the 20th century. One newspaper commented at the time that “better work is got out of him [black workers] when he sees the prospect of a cheering glass at the end of a day’s labour”.

The quality of liquor being sold to black people was bad enough that it claimed many lives. An 1890 Standard and Diggers News editorial made clear that “he would be a bold man who would bet on the purity of the liquor ordinarily retailed in Johannesburg”. (Feel free to imagine that the spirits available on Alex’s black market today are better, but by no means pleasant.) All of this is to say nothing of the social devastation alcohol wreaked among black workers on the Rand.

But deaths didn’t bother the mining houses. An eventual downturn in productivity, however, did. At one point, they estimated that between 15% and 25% of their labour force was “disabled by drink”. Unchecked sale of liquor was undermining the Rand’s extractive industries. Mine owners abandoned alcohol as a means of control and the Chamber of Mines made its first call for prohibition in 1896.

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But the sale of alcohol to black workers – who, it was hoped, would now be more efficient – that the mines succeeded in prohibiting continued apace. Criminal syndicates emerged to service the market, carving the city into territories between them. Often family-organised, they exercised no small amount of control over the state, and were tied up in organised killings and election-rigging.

Manned mostly by eastern European immigrants, the syndicates were stocked by some of South Africa’s most powerful capitalists. After a train line to Delagoa Bay opened in 1885, French-run Mozambican distilleries took control of Joburg’s illicit alcohol supply – mainly cheap potato spirits. Sammy Marks, a leading captain of industrial Pretoria and close friend of Paul Kruger, took them over four years later.

New boss same as the old boss?

The coronavirus is by no means Alexandra’s first dance with pandemic. Reports of measles, smallpox and polio were widespread at the time the township was established shortly after Johannesburg’s first experiments with prohibition.

But if contagious disease has been part of the Alex story from the beginning, alcohol has been an even more important character.

In their seminal history of the township, Noor Nieftagodien and Phil Bonner called beer-brewing “a defining feature of Alexandra society”. By the early 1940s, it was the most common form of income for the mostly women residents who were not working outside of the township, funding many a university education. In a few cases, the liquor had not improved much from the deadly potato spirits sold to mineworkers. It was rumoured that some brews contained battery acid, and one was named “Baragwanath” for its reputation of sending the drinker to the Baragwanath Hospital.

An exception to the early 20th-century rule, Alex was one of the few freehold townships that was not under municipal control. Inspectors from the privately run Alexandra Health Committee, and not the police, were responsible for enforcing regulations. With the exception of raids on the sites of home-brewed liquor, the police were barely visible during Alex’s first four decades of existence. 

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In other townships, the land and homes in which people lived belonged to the state. But Alexandrans owned their homes. According to Thuto Thipe, a lecturer at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town whose research has focused on land tenure in the township, this meant greater resistance against police abuse. 

“On your own land, there are freedoms and protections that nobody can take away from you,” says Thipe. “And that was one of the underlying ideas around which old Alexandra was built, that on freehold land, the landowner is the ultimate authority on how things happen.”

Home ownership in Alex, and the resistance it allowed, “led to all sorts of social, political and cultural flourishing, because the state could not enforce its will the way that it did in locations and reserves where it could more easily and effectively suppress different expressions and organisation”.

The prominence of illicit liquor seems set for a revival in Alexandra under lockdown. But for all the continuities in prohibition, then and now, the differences might be more important. In Johannesburg’s early days of prohibition, mining capitalists were aligned with Parliament – then the Volksraad, or people’s council – against Paul Kruger and his chummy relations with liquor capitalists. Today, big liquor capital and the state appear to be at odds.

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The contents of South African Breweries trucks transporting millions of rands worth of alcohol in contravention of the lockdown have been seized (the multinational giant, turning wine to water, denied the booze was for sale), while South Africa’s liquor industry has ramped up lobbying to allow for takeaway booze in taverns. Most recently, the Gauteng Liquor Forum has threatened President Cyril Ramaphosa with legal action.

Another difference concerns the police. Pre-prohibition, a famously incapable force of 35 men policed Joburg’s population of 25 000. After prohibition, the force enjoyed periods of success, but was mostly for sale to political and monied interests. Today’s police officers are somewhat more efficient, and, given the right circumstances, ruthless. 

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Alex appears to have exactly those kinds of circumstances. Over the Easter weekend, reports emerged of soldiers beating 40-year-old Collins Khoza to death with a sjambok on the township’s Far East Bank, apparently for drinking alcohol. During the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown, the police killed more people than the virus, and investigative journalists have shown that even that was not out of character.

On our Alex street corner, with our protagonists having escaped precisely these attentions of the many police officers and soldiers milling about, a crumpled brown paper bag was hurried into the hatchback’s passenger door. Inside were two bottles of deep, amber Crown Whisky.

Correction, 16 April 2020: This article previously said a train line to Delagoa Bay opened in 1985.

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