A shebeen (Irish: síbín) was originally an illicit bar or club where excisable alcoholic beverages were sold without a licence. The term has spread far from its origins in Ireland, to Scotland, Canada, the United States, England, Zimbabwe, English-speaking Caribbean, Namibia, and South Africa. In modern South Africa, many "shebeens" are now fully legal. The word derives from the Irish síbín, meaning 'illicit whiskey'.
In South Africa and Zimbabwe, shebeens are most often located in townships as an alternative to pubs and bars, where under apartheid and the Rhodesian era, indigenous Africans were barred from entering pubs or bars reserved for those of European descent.
Originally shebeens were operated illegally by women who were called Shebeen Queens and was itself a revival of the African tradition that assigned the role of alcohol brewing to women. The Shebeen Queens would sell homebrewed and home-distilled alcohol and provided patrons with a place to meet and discuss political and social issues. Often, patrons and owners were arrested by the police, though the shebeens were frequently reopened because of their importance in unifying the community and providing a safe place for discussion. During the apartheid era shebeens became a crucial meeting place for activists, some attracting working class activists and community members, while others attracted lawyers, doctors and musicians.
Shebeens also provided music and dancing, allowing patrons to express themselves culturally, which helped give rise and support the musical genre kwaito. Currently, shebeens are legal in South Africa and have become an integral part of South African urban culture, serving commercial beers as well as umqombothi, a traditional African beer made from maize and sorghum. Shebeens still form an important part of today’s social scene. In contemporary South Africa, they serve a function similar to juke joints for African Americans in the rural south. They represent a sense of community, identity, and belonging.
Today, they appeal to South Africa’s youth, and are mostly owned by men. Shebeens are bouncing back as South Africans try to preserve some of their cultural heritage.
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